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Robotic Device Helps Wisconsin Man Walk Again

UnityPoint Health-Meriter physical therapist Tracy Bovre walks behind patient Rick Batty as he practices using a robotic walking device.
Shamane Mills

A lot of research is devoted to spinal cord injuries that cause paralysis, with scientists looking at stem cells and other ways to get people walking again. But rare breakthroughs in the lab haven’t led to widespread treatment.

So, some are using motorized exoskeletons to get around.

Rick Batty first learned how to walk as a toddler. Now, he’s doing it again at age 63 after a spinal cord injury left him paralyzed from the waist down.

"It’s a dream, I mean. It’s a dream I’ve had for eight and a half years," he said.

Batty is walking with the help of braces that have motors attached. You don’t hear footsteps. Rather, the sound is mechanical and rhythmic as he makes his way across the room.

Batty is using a device made by ReWalkRobotics, which is one of several companies that make what are called "exoskeletons," mechanical devices that fit on the outside of a person's arms and legs.

It’s not the armor-like suit seen in movies such as "Iron Man." Instead, it’s a small computer worn on the back controlled by a device on a person's wrist. That control has three settings: walking, standing or sitting.

Craig Peters, who works at ReWalk, said that the computer helps perform these tasks.

"When he selects walk he actually has to do something for it to begin walking. That usually is just leaning forward. And then the sensors kick in and it recognizes he wants to move. For sitting and standing, you just simply select (the) function you are trying to accomplish. It will give you beeps telling you that you need to be in this position for that upward or downward movement," he said.

Batty had to gain strength and loosen ligaments before he could even learn how to use his robotic exoskeleton, and he said there were other obstacles, too.

"I had to lose 70 pounds! There is a weight limit on this. And so, I had to lose a lot of weight before I could even get this thing on," he said.

Tracy Bovre, Batty's physical therapist at UnityPoint Health-Meriter, has worked with him for almost nine years, ever since a blood clot caused a lesion on his spine and left him paralyzed. Before knowing him as a patient, she had played soccer with him.

"I knew about his activity level and his determination and willingness to achieve his goals," she said.

Batty has a personal goal of walking again, but he said there's more to it than that.

"What I'm doing here is blazing a trail for many people who are going to follow this and use this device to to prevent pressure sores, possibly reduce the number of situations where there are circulation issues or digestive issues that are associated with paraplegia and sitting in a chair," he said.

Batty's insurance paid for his own pressure sore, which kept him in the hospital six days with an infection. It also covers physical therapy for his spine injury.

But, like most insurance companies, Physicians Plus doesn't cover the $77,000 cost of theReWalk device.

Craig Peters, the company's national accounts director, said they're trying to convince insurers to pay for the device.

"One of the big factors that was very positive recently was the VA (Veterans Administration) decided to start covering this technology for veterans. So, obviously that was a big move forward," he said.

And forward is the direction Batty said he hopes to maintain. He said right after his injury, while still in the hospital, he wrote the words "self-pity" on a piece of paper. Then, he put an "X" through it. He said he realized his life was about to change and probably not for the better.

But as he put it, things have a way of working out.

Wisconsin Public Radio, Copyright 2016, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.