It’s been 27 years since the car crash that profoundly changed Stephanie Cadieux’s life.
The Liberal MLA and former cabinet minister was a passenger in a pickup truck that rolled off a highway near Bellingham, Wash.
Cadieux, just 18 at the time, woke up in hospital, unable to move.
“I was ejected from the vehicle, broke my neck and was completely paralyzed at first,” she recalled. “It was the start of a long journey back.”
The journey included a halo brace to immobilize her head and neck, and an entire year in hospital and rehab as some feeling gradually returned to her limbs.
Categorized as an incomplete quadriplegic, Cadieux has used a wheelchair ever since.
“I can stand and take awkward steps with some assistance, but not functional walking,” she said.
But the Surrey-Panorama MLA recently had a chance to experience the feeling of walking once again.
At the Health Tech Innovation Hub complex, across the street from Surrey Memorial Hospital, Cadieux heard about the Lokomat, a robotic exoskeleton that helps people with paralysis use their legs again.
“As soon as I saw this technology, I thought, ‘That’s fantastic. I can totally see how that would be beneficial.’ They said, ‘Well, would you like to try it?’ I said, ‘Oh yes! I would love to.’ ”
At the Neuromotion Physiotherapy Clinic last week, therapist Pauline Martin carefully wrapped Cadieux’s legs in preparation for her session.
Cadieux was then strapped into a body harness, hoisted from her wheelchair and her legs slipped gently into the machine’s robotic limbs.
“OK, here we go,” Martin said, controlling the robot through a computer interface.
The computer screen flashes, the machine begins to hum, and Cadieux’s legs start moving forward in a brisk, walking gait as the MLA breaks into a smile.
“It feels a little funky at first because the machine starts moving before your feet are lowered onto a treadmill,” Cadieux said. “It was a little like treading water, which was an interesting feeling in itself.”
But then her feet touched the treadmill and Cadieux felt something very familiar, even after all this time in her chair.
“Once there was some weight going through my joints, I could feel my hips and knees engage in a normal walking motion,” she said.
“To be able to experience functional walking again — moving both my legs, both feet, both knees, both hips — was an amazing sensation after 27 years.”
She takes step after step: 100, 200, then 500 and beyond.
“Feeling bionic!” she joked. “Or like a Transformer. Maybe this is how Bumblebee feels?”
She took more than 1,000 steps over two sessions in the Lokomat. Martin, who owns the Neuromotion Clinic, where the Lokomat is on loan from its manufacturer since December, said the high-tech therapy can help Cadieux build strength and endurance while reducing the risk of muscle atrophy.
Cadieux, though, is under no illusions.
“I don’t expect to walk again,” she said. “There’s too much motion missing on my right side, and that’s totally OK. But knowing this technology could help other people walk again? That’s very cool.”
For people like Alanna Jones, the robotic walker opens up thrilling possibilities.
“I love it,” said the 25-year-old Surrey resident, who works out on the Lokomat twice a week.
“It feels really good to get up and walk around. I can feel my sensations coming back.”
Four years ago, Jones and some friends decided to climb a tree for fun. She fell and broke her back, leaving her a quadriplegic.
The Lokomat is her favourite part of her rehab program.
“Since I started using it, I can move my legs in the water during pool therapy. That’s really great.”
The Lokomat is in high demand at the Surrey clinic, one of just three in B.C. that offer the machine for public use.
In addition to people with spinal cord injuries, the machine is of great help to people with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, brain injuries and stroke, Martin said.
“People can have a very vigorous session and put in some great work in just 15 minutes,” she said.
“It’s a breakthrough for people who need to learn how to walk again,” Cadieux added.
“Their muscles are functional, but their brains aren’t sending the right signals to their legs. So someone recovering from a brain injury or stroke, for example, can re-train the body, which is an awesome therapy.”
The technology was developed by Swiss electronics engineer Gery Colombo, who got the idea while watching therapists struggle to help people walk again using parallel bars. Now his company, Zurich-based Hocoma, builds and markets the Lokomat to hospitals and rehab clinics around the world.
But the machine is not cheap.
“It costs $500,000 to buy one and $10,000 a year to maintain,” Martin said, adding the price tag is inflated with the addition of two miniature robotic legs so the machine can also be used by children.
The therapy is not covered by the B.C. Medical Services Plan, the government’s public health insurer. People injured at work or in auto collisions, though, often have the therapy paid for by WorkSafeBC or ICBC, respectively.
“Many people also have private insurance coverage through workplace extended-health plans, but that obviously doesn’t apply to everyone.”
For people without insurance coverage, the cost to use the machine is $175 an hour, but even that does not cover the upfront cost of the expensive technology.
That’s why Neuromotion has partnered with a local charity, the Drive for the Cure Foundation, to raise money to buy the machine and keep it in Surrey.
“The company agreed to loan us the Lokomat while we raise the funds,” Martin said. “We’ve raised $177,000 so far, so we have a way to go.”
Neuromotion currently has three Lokomats, with the other two based at their clinics in Victoria and Vancouver. Those machines were purchased by clients whose children suffered spinal-cord injuries and wanted access to the machines.
One of the leading voices for the fundraising drive is Michael Coss, an inspirational traumatic brain injury (TBI) survivor who has dedicated his life to helping other survivors as a motivational speaker and fundraiser.
Coss was injured in a horrific car crash in 2006, when he lost control of the van he was driving on the Coquihalla Highway. The van flipped and rolled, leaving Coss and his six-month-old son Nathan in comas.
Nathan woke up after 10 days and recovered, while Coss was in his coma for six-and-a-half months. Doctors told him he would remain at a reduced mental and physical capacity forever.
But after years of rehab, including many hours in the Lokomat, he has made an amazing recovery, going from a power wheelchair to a manual wheelchair and now walking with a cane.
“The Lokomat allowed me to walk again,” he said. “Now I want to pay it back and help others have access to it.”
Coss, who won B.C.’s Courage to Come Back Award and wrote a book about his recovery, said the physical benefits of the robotic therapy are obvious enough.
But he said there’s also a tremendous mental and emotional lift from using the machine.
“You see yourself walking in the mirror and the feeling you get from that is incredible,” he said. “It boosts your confidence and gives you the power and drive to go further. We need to keep this technology in Surrey.”
Martin said demand for the therapy is growing and she encourages people not to think of paralysis as extremely rare or unlikely.
“Anyone can suffer a neurological injury, it can happen in an instant, and you want good rehab if it does,” she said.
Some eye-popping statistics back her up. There are currently more than 300,000 British Columbians living with neurological conditions and access to quality rehabilitative care is often limited and expensive.
According to Health Canada, about 22,000 British Columbians suffer a brain injury each year. Almost 5,000 will have a stroke, 900 will be diagnosed with Parkinson’s and 500 people will suffer a spinal cord injury.
“There’s a big need, but the expense can definitely be a barrier,” Martin said. “Making high-quality rehab more affordable and more accessible is one of our goals.”
For Cadieux, still glowing after her robotic walk, the message to the public is one of hope and excitement, not despair or doom from a catastrophic injury.
“There was nothing like this 27 years ago when I was injured,” she said.
“Seeing how far we have come is amazing. It makes you think about wearable robotics and what’s possible.”
“The robotic legs are going to get smaller. They will get easier to use. They will be fitted more easily. This is a glimpse into the future of robotic walking for people with paralysis.”
As Cadieux gets back into her wheelchair, she said she enjoyed her trip down memory lane.
“I’ve never lost the sense in my mind of what it feels like to walk and this experience reminded me of that,” she said. “To see myself upright and walking? That felt good. That was cool.
“But I’m also happy in my chair, it’s a part of me, and I’m very happy with my life. What I find exciting is the rapid technological advances, knowing other people will walk again. That’s inspiring.”
To donate to the campaign to help keep the robotic technology in Surrey, visit projectlokomat.com. Donations over $100 receive a charitable tax receipt.
CLICK HERE to report a typo.
Is there more to this story? We’d like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
LISTEN: This week on In The House, Mike Smyth and Rob Shaw dissect Jason Kenney’s victory in the Alberta election and what it will mean for B.C., when we could see an all-out-legal war between the provinces, what can be done about the high price of gas at the pumps, and the whether being able to order alcohol onboard B.C. Ferries is a good idea.