Boy with cerebral palsy takes 1st steps without helping hands — thanks to a robotic walker

Holland Bloorview, the country's largest children's rehabilitation hospital and research centre, is studying if the Trexo device could be used outside hospital settings to help children walk and experience sports for the first time.

Leo Cogger is one of 10 children part of Holland Bloorview study of Trexo device

Leo Cogger is one of 10 children participating in a study at Holland Bloorview looking at whether a robotic device that helps children walk without assistance could be used outside hospital settings. (Submitted by Stefanie Bradley)

Rachel Brown didn't know if she'd ever see her five-year-old with cerebral palsy walk without someone else's help.

But about two months ago, Leo Cogger took his first steps far from any helping hands.

Leo is one of 10 children with cerebral palsy between the ages of three and six years old who are part of a new study at Holland Bloorview, the country's largest children's rehabilitation hospital and research centre.  The study gave him the opportunity to walk with the help of a kind of robotic walker or exoskeleton that moves his legs for him, known as a Trexo device.

Seeing a video of her son walk was an emotional moment for Brown.

"We certainly cried," she said, adding she quickly sent the video to family members so they could see his progress.

Leo had had the chance to use the Trexo device acquired by Holland Bloorview in multiple week sessions with a research team earlier this year. The researchers say the first-of-its-kind trial is looking at how the device could be used outside the hospital setting to enhance the lives of children like Leo.

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

Brown says she could tell her son was happy using the robotic walker.

"I can tell from just the kind of mannerisms and his kind of sunny disposition when he's in it," she said.

Holland Bloorview's Trexo has already been on field trips to the playground. (Submitted by Stefanie Bradley)

But Leo's progress using the Trexo didn't end there.

A few weeks later, Brown had the chance to see him kick a ball and hold objects while walking, something normally very difficult for him to coordinate, she said. 

She says he was able to participate in activities in a gym that he had never before been able to, leaving her hopeful he may be able to do more with his peers than she thought possible.

Early findings promising

Stefanie Bradley, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto working on the study, says even though it only began in March, the findings so far are overwhelmingly positive.

"These kids, they're excited for every single physiotherapy session," she said.

She says children are also communicating more and experiencing joy, she said.

The team has taken children out onto the attached school's outdoor play space and into other school settings with success, she said. The hope is that children can have greater access to these devices in environments outside the hospital, she said.

"It provides this sense of autonomy for the kids, even just to be eye-level with their peers," she said. For many, it's also the first time they have been able to really partake in a sport.

Bradley and collaborators Tom Chau and Virginia Wright will look at how the device affects the muscles and the brain so that teams can offer more personalized, accessible rehabilitation in the future, she said. 

"I think in the future, it's going to open doors for adoption of this device so that it can become more commonplace and ideally, more children would have access," she said.

Holland Bloorview expands

Dr. Evdokia Anagnostou, vice president of research at Holland Bloorview and director of the Bloorview Research Institute, says the Trexo study is "an example of a good academia, hospital, clinical and industry partnership." 

The innovative partnership is an example of something the institute aspires to do more of, she said.

Beyond that, the centre's new expansion of more than 1,000 square metres means there are now even more opportunities for research and programs to help children with cerebral palsy and other disabilities or developmental differences thrive, she said. 

Trexo device
Stefanie Bradley makes an adjustment to Holland Bloorview's Trexo device. She is one of the researchers with the hospital's study. (Submitted by Stefanie Bradley)

Holland Bloorview's study will continue throughout the year with other children involved in the trial. Bradley says she's hopeful that the findings of the study will continue to be positive, and if they are, it could lead to Holland Bloorview acquiring more devices to increase shared access to them for all children that might benefit.

The organization would also like to acquire a device one size larger so older children and the children involved in this trial would have some access to a device as they age. 

Positive results from the trial would also make it more likely families could have the device covered under health insurance plans, so more children could have a device of their own, she said.

While Leo had the chance to use the device during the trial, his sessions have now come to an end.

Still, Brown says the experience has her thrilled about her son's progress and hopeful for his future, physically and socially. She hopes the study will lead to increased access to the devices for her son and children like him to be able to do the things they never imagined possible before.

"We would really like to see him in this on a regular basis in the future," she said. 


Clara Pasieka is a CBC journalist in Toronto. She has also worked in CBC's national bureau and as a reporter in the Northwest Territories, Ontario and New Brunswick. Her investigative work following the Nova Scotia Mass Shooting was a finalist for a CAJ Award. She holds a Masters degree in Public Policy, Law and Public Administration from York University.