Toronto

Paraplegic finds his feet with help from wearable exoskeleton 'ReWalk'

With the help of a wearable robotic exoskeleton developed by the University of California Berkley, Robert Woo is back on his feet – albeit with a bit of bionic help.

Robert Woo is an architect with some notable projects under his belt. He's also a paraplegic.

Paraplegic man teaches young students to never give up

CBC News: Toronto at 6:00

5 years ago
1:03
Ethan Yee tells his school mates about his Uncle Robert Woo, his hero. Woo became a paraplegic in a workplace accident in 2007. He can now walk, thanks to this robotic technology designed in the U.S. 1:03

When 12-year-old Ethan Yee was asked to choose a personal hero for a school essay, he didn't think twice about choosing his uncle Robert.

"He is my hero because I have never met anyone who has more courage, perseverance, optimism and strength," Yee told a gymnasium full of students at Ashton Meadows Middle School in Markham. 

Robert Woo is a New York based architect with some notable projects under his belt. He's designed parts of Pearson International Airport, Hong Kong's International Finance Centre and a Goldman Sachs building. He's also a paraplegic.

It was on one such design job that Woo's world changed forever.

On Dec. 14, 2010, seven tonnes of steel fell from the 25th floor of a building onto his trailer. Woo was crushed from the weight and became paralyzed from the chest down. His doctors told him he would never walk again.

But with the help of a wearable robotic exoskeleton developed by the University of California Berkeley, Woo is back on his feet – albeit with a bit of bionic help.

Yet at $77,000 the technology, called ReWalk, is prohibitively expensive. Woo was selected to participate in a trial of the exoskeleton in 2011 – one of six participants to do so. It was the first time he'd been on his feet in four years.

"My sons when they first saw me in the bionics, they said, "Daddy, you're in an Ironman suit – can you fly?'  And I said to them, 'Not yet. I need to learn how to walk first.'"

Your life could drastically change

Since then, he says he's noticed a slew of health benefits including being able to regain feeling in his digestive system, being able to cut down on some of his medications and getting back some of his muscle mass. Two years ago, he even ran a marathon.

"I could probably walk for two and half miles without being exhausted," Woo says. "My next goal is to be able to play soccer with it."

And now that he's getting more comfortable balancing on his feet, he likes to raise one of the ski-like poles from time to time to say hello when someone greets him – something that sometimes makes the folks at ReWalk nervous.

But Woo is determined to make his life as normal as ever, working now to design a home that's fully accessible but that looks just like anyone else's. 

And his determination is rubbing off on his nephew as well, who says he'd like to become an engineer to develop similar tools to help people.

As for whether he lives up to Ethan's characterization of him, Woo doesn't think so.

"I really can't see myself as being a hero," says Woo. "I was very surprised that I was chosen to be his subject matter.

"My goal is really to share this story," Woo says. "And that your life could drastically change - for the better."

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