A BIONIC suit in Cork that gives wheelchair users the chance to experience simulated walking has reached the end of its lifespan prompting calls for an urgent replacement.
The exoskeleton — a robotic device that allows those suffering from paralysis to take a number of steps to experience walking again — is the only one of its kind in the country outside of a hospital or rehabilitation setting.
Colin O’Shaughnessy, who runs the Elite gym at the Marina Commerical Park, where the device is located, said the piece of equipment cost €100,000 to purchase and a further €50,000 to cover service charges.
Colin said he purchased the exoskeleton five years ago. Up to now, they have relied on donations from the public to keep the initiative in motion.
“This was only a five-year-plan,” he explained. “We’ve had it for longer than most.”
The €50,000 sum to account for repair costs also only covered that five- year period.
Colin is now hopeful that public donations will continue in order for him to support as many people as possible following life-changing accidents.
“We’ve already had to replace a huge chunk of it,” Colin said.
“It’s been a battle to help people.”
The exoskeleton was originally introduced by the US military to help soldiers carry heavy loads before being used by spinal cord injury survivors.
Research has shown that patients availing of exoskeletons can experience a number of significant health benefits which vary from better circulation, increased oxygen intake to reduced pain, better bowel and bladder function and improved joint maintenance.
Seeing a loved one walk for the first time since an accident can be a hugely emotional milestone for family members.
Shortly, before speaking to The Echo, Colin had sent a photograph to the father of a gym user standing for the first time ahead of preparations for using the exoskeleton.
“It’s not just the person affected by the accident who has their world changed,” Colin said.
“Their whole family’s world has changed too.”
22-year-old Jack O’Driscoll from Lotabeg was paralysed from a fall in March 2018 during Storm Emma.
He is currently working up the strength to take steps using the exoskeleton which will take months of preparation and intense training.
The northside man emphasised the importance of a new exoskeleton for wheelchairs users in Cork and beyond.
“Here I was able to see myself up straight for the first time,” Jack said. “Seeing my reflection in the window was strange. I hadn’t seen myself like that for two years.
“In one way, it was upsetting but you have to make the most of a situation. You have to enjoy your life and make the best of what you have instead of sitting around being depressed. When I first had the accident the question of whether I would ever walk again kept running through my head. I’m glad that I’ll be able to experience walking again even if it’s just in a mechanical sense.”
Jack said that the evolving technology for wheelchair users has given him hope: “I can picture myself in the suit but I’m not looking too far ahead as it’s going to take time.
“However, I know this is going to be another step towards where I want to be. Twenty years ago people would never have thought this was possible but there are more people working on the technology now. Who knows what might come along in the next 10 or 15 years.”
The Corkman said he does his best to get through the bad days and is grateful for the good ones.
“There’s not a day that goes by where my head doesn’t wander. However, I met some very positive people while in rehabilitation. When I think about them it brings me back.”
He praised Colin for introducing the innovative service to his gym.
“It’s hard for young lads with injuries because there is no guidance. They are not sure where to go. Colin takes an interest in people who have challenges and wants to make their lives better”
Jack added that the gym has helped him in a number of other ways too.
“I could move my arms but I had no control when it came to things like moving myself forward. Now I’m a lot stronger.”
The 22-year-old said that his dad will likely be there to watch him take his first steps using the exoskeleton.
“I won’t be making a big deal of the day even though it will be an important one. I’ve no doubt my dad will be there taking photographs and pictures because he’s been there the whole time.”
To find out more about the initiative or how to donate to the Exoskeleton fund call 087 1326600 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.