A BLACKROCK man who was paralysed in a diving accident has spoken of how a bionic suit gave his son the chance to see him walk for the first time.
Ben Coughlan was on a sight-seeing boat trip to Corfu with his pregnant wife when life as he knew it changed forever.
He damaged his C3 and C6 vertebrae in a freak accident caused by irregular sand formations.
Just three months later, his son Zack was born. Now sixteen Zack trains with dad at Elite Fitness Centre in Marina Commercial Park where Ben avails of the exoskeleton — a wearable robotic device that simulates walking and promotes a number of health benefits, including improved blood flow, decreased pressure sores, increased sensation and help with stability.
“Before I got the chance to use the exoskelton Zack had only ever known me in a wheelchair,” Ben said.
“His first comment after seeing me walking was that he’d never realised I was so tall.
“As humans, we are made to be vertical so the improvements the exoskeleton has made to my health have been vast. The fact that it is in a gym setting helps because it’s now something we can do together.”
He praised the work of gym owner Colin O’Shaughnessy who fundraised for the device, valued at around €100,000.
The idea was sparked by a user of the gym, Nathan Kirwan from Currabinny, who was paralysed after falling from a tree.
Ben said the exoskeleton has improved his life dramatically and resulted in a number of health benefits.
The qualified marine biologist opened up about his story to encourage others to donate to the exoskeleton fund and help more people in his position.
“It’s fantastic to be able to come here a few times a week.
“Before using the exoskeleton I wasn’t able to give my wife a hug. That’s all changed now. My core strength has improved significantly.
“In the last few years, I’ve started cooking for my son. He loves my chicken, mushrooms, chicken and leak pie covered in white wine sauce.”
Thanks to the exoskeleton and hydrotherapy in the Maradyke Arena, Ben has even been able to return to diving again.
“If people knew, they could take Colin’s lead and do this off their own bat, it would make a huge difference to people’s lives.”
Ben is keen to raise awareness so that people can get help in the early stages of their own rehabilitation.
Speaking about the birth of his son he said: “I was so weak I wasn’t able to participate in family life. It would have been great to have had a place like this in the early days to get stronger. I’m able to do so much more now.
“We’re going on much more interesting family holidays. I was able to partake in disabled skiing in the Alps, something I couldn’t have done with a weaker core.
“It’s fantastic to be able to come here a couple of times a week.
“It’s really important that more funds are raised so that more people can benefit from this. The more people that know about this the better.”
He described the importance of support in the community, away from hospitals and rehabilitation centres.
“When something like this happens it hits you straight away.
“Suddenly you can’t move and you’re trying to get around a hospital without the capabilities you once took for granted.
“It completely changes you. Your life veers off in a completely different path. There’s a lot of adjusting mentally and physically. You don’t realise the ramifications of something like this until it happens to you.”
The advancement in technology has fuelled Ben’s hope for the future.
“You have to keep optimistic. As human beings, hope is our strongest attribute.
“This has enhanced all facets of my life. I’m going out more. My confidence has improved. It’s not just my son and wife that go camping now. We can all go together.”
He hopes that more gyms in the future will adopt the same approach as Colin.
“It makes you fitter and able to cope, not just at home, but in a gym environment, interacting with others, managing yourself and doing things.
“If more people could take Colin’s lead and do this off their own bat it would make a huge difference to people’s lives.”
Gym owner, Colin O’Shaughnessy is dedicated to helping people living with paralysis and limited movement and hopes to start another exoskeleton fundraising campaign soon.
“I lose sleep worrying about the people out there who don’t know about this,” Colin said.
“There are people sitting in their kitchens that can’t make a cup of tea for themselves whose lives could be completely changed by this.
“If they can’t afford the sessions we will fundraise for them. It’s important that we reach as many people as possible”
To find out more about the exoskeleton or how to donate to upcoming fundraising campaigns visit 087 132 6600 firstname.lastname@example.org.