High School Student with Paraplegia to Use Indego® Exoskeleton to Walk Across Stage to Accept Diploma
This evening around 8 p.m., 18-year-old William (Will) Seth Hutchins will walk into a football stadium in Heard County, Ga., with 124 classmates for his high school graduation.
Although Will was the homecoming king, prom king and Mr. Heard County High School, what he will do brings to mind the title of the song “The Impossible” – the lyrics of which are tattooed on his forearms.
Will has paraplegia, meaning he cannot move his lower trunk or legs. But using forearm crutches and an assistive device called Indego®, he will make the long walk into his school’s football stadium, up a ramp, across the stage and down another ramp. Indego is a robotic exoskeleton, which is worn over a user’s legs and waist. It provides powered assistance so the user can stand up and walk.
“This was not a dream,” says Carla Hutchins, Will’s mother. “This was a goal of his. He didn’t care how he did it. One way or another, he was going to walk across that stage.”
Will sustained a complete thoracic-level-7 spinal cord injury (SCI) in June 2013 when his pickup truck flipped in the rain and landed in a ditch. That Will survived at all is a miracle: The cab was flattened like a pancake.
He spent six weeks in rehabilitation at Shepherd Center as an inpatient and in the day program.
“There was a large group of adolescents there at the time, and several of them were walking before they left," Carla recalls. "So that was Will’s intention. It wasn’t until he was in the day program that he grasped that he wasn’t going to go home walking. But Shepherd Center went over and beyond to help Will and gave him the knowledge and ability to function as normally as he could.”
Home for Will is near Franklin, Ga., a village 60 miles southwest of Atlanta with a population of 902 and one stoplight. When he returned to home, two things gave him hope.
One, his friends included him in everything they did.
“He was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to do all the things he loved, but they stuck by him,” Carla says. “They’d put him in the truck and off they’d go.”
Another was these lyrics from Joe Nichols’ song, “The Impossible.”
Unsinkable ships sink.Unbreakable walls break.Sometimes the things you think would never happen,
Happen just like that.Unbendable steel bends.If the fury of the wind is unstoppable,I've learned to never underestimate,The impossible.
Will resumed therapy at Shepherd Center in spring 2014 and, later, participated in Shepherd Center’s Beyond Therapy® program. And he never stopped thinking about graduation.
“He was getting stronger in his trunk and arms, but he thought he was going to have to use straight long leg braces to walk,” Carla says. “But walking with long leg braces is very tiring. It would have been a huge challenge for Will to walk up and down a ramp and across the stage – not to mention the distance walking on the field using those braces.”
But in January 2015, Will was accepted into an Indego clinical trial at Shepherd Center, the lead site for testing of the device. The Indego was designed by Vanderbilt University engineers and was licensed and is being commercialized by Ohio-based Parker Hannifin Corp.
Indego has five component parts (a hip piece, two upper leg pieces and two lower leg pieces) and is controlled via an app on an iPod.
Will and other trial participants use the Indego as a “legged Segway,” explains Clare Hartigan, the Indego research coordinator at Shepherd Center. The user controls his movement by leaning forward to walk forward and returning to an upright position to stop walking. To sit, the user leans backward, and Indego dampens its motors until the user is safely seated.
“You can mix and match component part sizes to fit various user’s body types. “ Hartigan explains. “Indego weighs only 26 pounds, which is half the weight of other exoskeletons. It is the only exoskeleton that can be worn in a person’s own rigid-frame wheelchair.”
Will and other users can put on and take off Indego without assistance while seated in a wheelchair. Indego is the only robotic exoskeleton that can be self-transported by the user, as well, Hartigan notes. “Thus, it offers complete independence for donning, doffing, standing, sitting and walking over inside and outside surfaces with a stability aid, such as a walker or forearm crutches,” she adds.
Indego was designed from the beginning with personal use in mind. But it also has potential as a rehabilitation device to help improve walking for people with a variety of neurological conditions, such as spinal cord injury, brain injury, stroke and multiple sclerosis, Hartigan explains.
The device’s developer, Parker Hannifin Corp, hopes to have FDA approval by the end of 2015 to sell Indego commercially. Five U.S. rehabilitation facilities, including Shepherd Center, continue to gather data to support the FDA submission.
“We want to make sure that we don’t create false hope,” says Stefan Bircher, global development manager for Parker Hannifin. “If someone has a complete spinal cord injury, Indego will not heal the injury. But it may give them a new level of independence."
In the clinical trial, Will has used Indego more than two dozen times, walking as much as one-third of a mile.
“It’s a lot better than sitting down,” he says. “I have to look up at people all day. With this, I can look at people eye to eye.”
If the FDA approves Indego, the commercial version is expected to cost about $70,000. The hope is that exoskeletons will continue to evolve, become more affordable, and that research will confirm the health and psychological benefits of the device, prompting insurers and other payers to cover it.
“I told Will, ‘You’re so young, you’ve got your lifetime ahead of you,’” Carla says. “The way technology is and the progress they’ve already made, one way or another, you’ll be on your feet again.’ I really believe that.”
In the media
Written by John Christensen
Photos and Video by Louie Favorite
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 743 inpatients, 277 day program patients and more than 7,161 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.