Up on two feet again

It looks like something out of science fiction. But a new bionic suit being used at University Health System is helping patients with paralysis or lower extremity weakness regain strength and movement.

The Ekso exoskeleton — a kind of wearable robot — allows these patients to stand and walk under medical supervision. In the process many relearn how to move and step. Sensors in the suit signal the device to walk as the users shift their weight.

This gait training can help those with stroke, spinal cord injury or disease, traumatic brain injuries, multiple sclerosis and other conditions.

Pedro Lozano counts himself among those helped by the device. The 56-year-old construction worker suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side two days after Christmas, 2013.

“He couldn’t walk at all before,” said his son, Omar Lozano, watching his father during his third session wearing the suit, walking slowly across the floor of University Health System’s outpatient Reeves Rehabilitation Center. “Now he can raise himself up from his bed and walk a little by himself. If it wasn’t for this, I don’t think he would be this far along.”

University Health System acquired the device through a grant from the Baptist Health Foundation, and is the only facility in South Texas using it.

“It was really exciting,” said Julie Douglas, a physical therapist at Reeves trained to use the device. “For patients who no longer have the ability to walk, it’s good for them to be able to get up and walk again — and therapeutic from the weight-bearing exercise. For patients who have weakness from disease or injury, it is retraining them to walk.”

The company was founded by members of the robotics and human engineering laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. They developed similar technology for the military to allow individual soldiers to carry heavy loads over rough terrain.

Not all patients are candidates to use the suit. A screening and physician referral is required.