How a robotic exoskeleton helped a Wheaton woman 'feel strong' again
Jen Kray pictured herself running again when she used a robotic exoskeleton at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton.
The battery-powered, body-length frame has motors at each of the hips and sensors throughout the device, primarily at the ankles and feet.
Marianjoy introduced the machine nearly four years ago, and it's since become significantly more widespread at other rehabilitation facilities to help certain patients who wear it stand and walk.
"The first time I was in that I had such trouble walking," said Kray, who suffered a life-threatening brain bleed at 23 years old. "My balance was really poor."
Marianjoy physical therapists use a model made by Ekso Bionics and FDA-approved for stroke patients or those with spinal chord injuries. Therapists can adjust the level of assistance or resistance the device provides, with the goal of building the repetition of steps and correcting posture.
"We spend a lot of time working on that control of the center of gravity and where the patient is, and the Ekso provides that safe, upright posture to really work on that," Marianjoy outpatient physical therapist Kimberly Furman said.
When Kray first slipped on the robotic exoskeleton, she had to learn how to move with the device and not fight it.
"If I normally walk with kind of swinging my legs around and my feet hyperextended or something, the Ekso won't let you do that," she said. "It makes you walk properly, so that was the first and biggest difference that I noticed with it, and it helped me walk longer, so I really started to build my endurance with it."
The device is one of the tools therapists use with patients who have weakness caused by a stroke.
"We're hopefully increasing the number of steps that they get earlier in their recovery, which is what research shows is helpful in promoting a better outcome longer-term," Furman said.
Standing with the exoskeleton, patients tell Furman the device feels as heavy as a hiking backpack. Wearing it, patients also use an assistive device such as a walker.
"Depending on the settings, you either have to shift to the side or to the side and forward to trigger that next step," Furman said. "And then that next step can be either passive, completely by the machine or the patient has to do half the work, and the machine will do half the work, depending on how we set it."
As technology advances, the future could mean more accessible home options for patients, Furman said.
"It gives us an opportunity to get more done within a session with a patient," she said. "It's not that we can't accomplish the same thing outside of it hopefully. I think it's motivating for patients."
The device proved empowering for Kray, who can better control her balance and weight-shifting.
"I always picture myself running because I was a pretty big runner before my injury," she said. "So whenever I'm walking in it, I feel strong, stronger than I ever could feel on my own, and therefore it gives me hope that working with the Ekso and still doing other things, I will be able to run again."