Walking his way back to health – Gerry McCabe wants to share his Ekso Bionic suit to help people with disabilities regain better mobility
Gerry McCabe from Offaly has an incredible story to tell as he privately owns a robotic machine called an Ekso Bionic suit which allows him to walk without the use of his legs.
Gerry now wants to share his Ekso Bionic suit, affectionately named Hughie after his beloved father who passed away in 2004, and he hopes that it will be helpful to people with spinal cord injuries and other neurological problems such as incomplete SCI, stroke, MS, and Cystic Fibrosis.
Gerry (57) sustained a T11/T12 spinal cord injury in May 2004 when he was erecting the steel structure of a roof on a farm building and fell.
He explained, “One Saturday evening I was finishing off a bit of steel roofing and I was taking sheets off my son. He was giving me a hand for the evening, but all of sudden I slipped and fell off the roof down onto the ground. That was it, it all happened in a split second.”
At the time Gerry was 44 and he explains that being told he was paralysed from the waist down changed his world forever.
“I spent four and a half months in the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH), but thank God for the staff there because they taught me how to live with a spinal injury. They were amazing.”
Gerry spent the following eight years getting back to work and adjusting to life as a wheelchair user.
In 2012, however, life took an exciting twist when he was chatting to a friend of his at his house one day about a story he had read in Spinal News magazine about a man who came to the NRH to demonstrate how the Ekso Bionic suit worked.
“I was telling him all about this Ekso Bionic suit, and saying ‘Wow, is this the way it’s going to go for people with spinal injuries?’ He was taking it all in but he didn’t say anything to me at the time.
“He went away and met up with a few of my other really good friends and they formed a committee. They decided that they were going to fundraise €150,000 to buy the suit for me. They even knew what they were going to do and how they were going to raise the money.”
Over the coming weeks, Gerry’s friends came to his house and told him what they planned to do.
“I couldn’t believe it. I told them they were so good to do this for me. I knew it was an opportunity of a lifetime that I would never be able to afford to do on my own. So on they went, and they raised the money, and would you believe it, they did it in a little over three months!
“It was absolutely amazing, it’s bringing tears to my eyes thinking about it even now.”
Gerry then linked in with Spinal Injuries Ireland and also a lady called Jane Evans from RollingBall (now Accuscience), the Irish representative for the Ekso Bionic Suit.
Jane explained: “The early exoskeleton, Ekso 1.1 was too narrow for Gerry’s hips, and weight had crept up on Gerry. The suit has a max weight limit of 100kg. Gerry was told he had to lose 20kg in weight, which is not easy for a wheelchair user, but he decided he was going to put everything into it and lose the weight.”
Gerry said: “I exercised regularly using a respiratory training device, SpiroTiger, and I pushed myself up and down my road every day. I changed my diet too and I did it, I lost the 20kg.”
Having lost 20kg and with the introduction of the new Ekso GT with a variable hip width, Gerry passed all the criteria for walking in Ekso.
Gerry and his wife Dolores travelled down to Cork and met Jane at Elite Gym in Cork where Nathan Kirwan, who has a SCI and is the founder of the charity Helpful Steps, had set up a public access robotic walking service, the first service of its type in the world. Happily for Gerry, this trip was very successful.
“That day was something else. The first time in the suit was fantastic. The biggest thing for me was just to stand up again and be able to look into people’s eyes. That was a big thing for me. At 6ft 2” I was used to looking down from a height at people before my injury, so it was great not to have a creak in my neck looking up at people for the first time in years. Then just to take off walking, Christ to feel your legs moving again. It was unreal.”
From there, Gerry ordered his own suit from Jane Evans and he now proudly uses it to walk as much as he can every week.
“I have it here in the house with me all the time. The local people were very good to me here in Cloghan & Belmont and they gave me the key of the local community hall and said ‘Just keep walking.’ So I have access to the hall any time I want and I love it there.”
Gerry’s two sons, Kevin (30) and Stephen (28), along with his wife Dolores are all trained to walk with him in the Ekso suit and with their help he walks as much as he can each week.
“What I love about my suit is it’s not a one-day wonder for me. It wasn’t like we did the fundraiser and got the suit and said we’ll see what happens. The more I have it, the more I love it and the more I want to walk.”
Gerry explained that he has experienced massive health benefits through the use of the Ekso Bionic suit.
“It won’t ever replace my chair, that’s one thing, but I personally think it’s fantastic with regard to kidney infections or anything to do with bowel movement, bladder problems, etc. I don’t have any of those problems. When I get my check up every year at the NRH they say to me ‘I don’t know what you’re doing because there’s no kidney stones, there’s no blockages, there’s nothing.’ So it’s great.
“In terms of mobility, it has absolutely helped me. I find myself transferring much better than I used to and that kind of crept up on me. I used to find transferring sometimes quite difficult but now I transfer an awful lot better.”
Gerry explained that prior to using his Ekso Bionic suit, he had very bad chronic pain and he had to take a lot of painkillers to ease the pain. Since using his suit however, that has all changed.
“That was the biggest thing in my life; even though I’m still quite sore and I get pain flair-ups, I’m now off all my medication. And that’s down to walking.
“Prior to using the suit, I had slowed down completely from the way I used to be but, I found that once I started to walk, after about six months, I began to cut down slowly on my medication. I don’t take any pain killers at all now and that’s down to my three walks a week.”
Gerry has his suit for over a year now and he explained that he would now like to give back in some way.
“I want to get him – ‘Hughie’ – out there and create awareness that these machines/robots are very good. It is working for me and it’s actually the best robot that’s out there at the moment. Nothing has come near it yet and to have that kind of technology here in the kitchen beside me is something else. Now I want to share it with other people in my area who have disabilities.”
If you would like to try Gerry’s Ekso Bionic suit, you first have to be assessed by a physio to see if you are eligible to use the suit. Gerry will hold an event in Cloghan, Co Offaly in the coming months which will be a walk-in service for people to come along, be assessed and then plan how and when they can use the suit.
If you would like to contact Gerry to find out more information you can email him on firstname.lastname@example.org or call Spinal Injuries Ireland on 01 6532180 and we will put you in touch with him.