The Doc Project

This exoskeleton shows people with spinal cord injuries what it's like to walk again

Meet three people who have a new outlook on life, thanks to one wearable, shareable robot.

Meet three people who have a new outlook on life, thanks to one wearable, shareable robot

Jean Ogilvie (top left - clockwise), Josh Pelland and Alex McEwan have all been united by the experience of becoming "pioneers of exoskeletal walking." (CBC)

Imagine waking up in a hospital bed surrounded by the beeps and whirring sounds of the machines keeping you alive. The doctor tells you that you will likely never walk again.

But then, just as you begin to process that news, a physiotherapist shows up at your bedside and says, "Hold up. I might have a special opportunity for you." 

That's the journey taken by a number of Albertans who landed in Calgary's Foothills Medical Centre after accidents or trauma to their spine in the last three years. Three of those people are Alex McEwan, a university student in Lethbridge; Jean Ogilvie, a 77-year-old woman living in Calgary; and Josh Pelland, a former climber turned motivational speaker in Three Hills, Alta. 

All three are united by a technology called an exoskeleton, created by a company called Ekso Bionics, that allowed them to walk despite no longer being able to use their legs. 

Having a machine walk for you

Ogilvie remembers going to a physiotherapy appointment and seeing another woman on her ward walking in the exoskeleton. She laughs as she recalls the jealousy bubbling up.

"So I got really interested in it," said Ogilvie. "And finally I got the chance to do it too."

The 77-year-old had a disk rupture in her back in a way that was particularly traumatic. At her age, she wasn't expected to be able to rehabilitate to a point of walking again — at least not without the help of the wearable robot. 

I was a bit like, 'OK, this is the strangest thing ever.'- Josh Pelland, on using the exoskeleton for the first time

"The first time was a bit scary actually," Ogilvie said. "It's like a great big skeleton that sort of clasps you in its body. [It's] black and all sorts of straps and sensors tell you how I'm doing." 

Pelland agrees about how daunting the experience is to start.

"They just said, 'OK, the machine is going to assist you and lift you up.' And I was a bit like, 'OK, this is the strangest thing ever.'"

Once the frame of the exoskeleton is strapped along the outside of the patient's legs and up their back, starting from the seated position, it does lift them completely without the help of their own muscles.

From there they shift their upper-body weight within the machine to hit certain targets — once your body weight is shifted forward and laterally enough, a beep sounds and the exoskeleton pulls each leg forward, one at a time. 

Josh Pelland was paralyzed in a climbing accident on June 12, 2016 near Squamish, B.C. He was transferred from Vancouver to the Foothills Medical Centre after about a month of recovery where he was able to start using the exoskeleton. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

As patients learn to use the machine, they walk with the assistance of a walker. Then, as they progress, they upgrade to forearm crutches. The entire time, they're accompanied by the man behind the machine, Kyle McIntosh.

McIntosh is a physiotherapist and he worked with the exoskeleton both to help patients and to conduct research into the machine's impact on rehabilitation. 

"I was really going in research focused, and thinking this is about standing and walking and data collection and number of steps and the outcome measures that we're following," McIntosh said.

"It wasn't really a surprise that there were some emotional moments. But there were probably more than I expected. And you really never knew when they were going to come out."

Kyle McIntosh, the research physiotherapist working with Alberta Health Services looking at the safety and feasibility of exoskeletal assisted walking following spinal cord injury. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Emotions would spring up after someone accomplished their daily step goals, or when family visited and shared their first standing hug with a loved one since the accident — all of it thanks to this machine.

But there is one event, made possible by the exoskeleton, that stands out in terms of emotional kick: using the machine to allow McEwan to walk across the stage at his high school graduation. 

'I got to walk into the high school, I got to walk out'

It was McEwan's 15th birthday when he accidentally ran headlong into a light post at the bottom of a tobogganing hill. He happened to be in the hospital when McIntosh was looking for patients to help him learn how the machine worked. 

"So I obviously jumped at the opportunity to walk again," said McEwan. 

After being discharged and living once again without the exoskeleton, and therefore without the ability to walk — McEwan got an idea: maybe he'd be allowed to use the robot, just one last time. 

"High school wasn't high school for me. I only really got one semester of grade 10 before I broke my spine. So that first semester was great. I enjoyed it. I played sports. I was a good student. But then it was no longer about high school anymore. It was more about adjusting to my new life."

McIntosh and McEwan hatched the plan together and kept it a closely guarded secret. Then, on the day McEwan was set to graduate from Grade 12, he asked to be placed last on the list of students to cross the stage. 

"I remember taking a first few steps and not hearing very much. Hearing people cheer because I was the kid in the wheelchair at the high school, so it makes sense. But the second they saw the canes and my first few steps, just one kid erupted: 'Yeah!' And then everyone went crazy."

Alex McEwan takes big steps at graduation

5 years ago
Duration 1:22
On his fifteenth birthday in December 2015, Calgary's Alex McEwan was injured in a tobogganing accident with friends and lost the ability to walk. It’s the kind of change that could destroy a person, but Alex has thrived and is learning new skills. Watch him walk onstage, with some help from a powered exoskeleton, to receive his diploma.

"I think walking across the stage — just like I got to walk into my high school on the first day of Grade 10 — was a really good closing story. The chapter of me learning to live in a wheelchair was done. And it was now my turn to go live my life. So that's why I think it was such an important day because it gave me a lot of closure. I got to walk into the high school, I got to walk out."

'The Ekso gives you hope'

Looking in on these experiences from the outside, it seems almost cruel that the opportunity is offered to walk again, only to be taken away. But neither Ogilvie, McEwan nor Pelland said they felt that way about the chance they were given. All three said it allowed them to focus on the future instead of what they could no longer do after their respective injuries.

"The Ekso gives you hope," Ogilvie said. "Anybody that gets in that Ekso can't come out of it and not be more hopeful. You know?"

In Ogilvie's case, it gave her more than hope. The exoskeleton allowed her to retrain her brain to walk, despite the damage caused from the ruptured disk. She needs to use a walker now, but nonetheless can stand on her own two feet, even without the robot's help. 

Jean Ogilvie was able to regain her mobility after rupturing a disk in her spine, and says the exoskeleton is to thank for it. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

As for McEwan, he's taken up both sledge hockey and wheelchair basketball. And he's now enrolled at the University of Lethbridge, studying to become a history teacher. 

"I know how lucky I am. And I know there's a lot of people in wheelchairs who have never been able to use this machine and probably will never get to use this machine. I'm not sad that I don't get to use it again," he said.

"Don't get me wrong. It's an amazing machine and if I could spend every day in it, I would. But I know I can't. But the fact that I even got to do it once is enough for me."

Alex McEwan. (Sarah Bridge/CBC)

And two years after Pelland first used the exoskeleton, he too has pushed forward. 

"I definitely think taking part in the exoskeleton study, it broke me away from just doing the physio, which was great and was hard and what I needed at the time. But really, the only other option after that is to go sit in your room in the hospital and wait around for your next therapy session. So it broke all of that up, gave me something really to look look forward to. It was hard work physically, which is definitely what I needed."

Now Pelland is splitting his time working as a motivational speaker and training long hours each week with the hopes of one day making it onto the Canadian national paracycling team. 

"This major change in my life has probably made me a better person."
Josh Pelland, less than a year after his climbing accident, decided he wanted to bike from Jasper to Lake Louise on the Icefields Parkway on his handcycle. (Josh Pelland/Instagram)

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About the Producer

Sarah Lawrynuik is a freelance journalist based in Calgary. Sarah has worked for CBC in Halifax, Winnipeg and Calgary before deciding to travel as a freelancer, reporting from different corners of the world including France, Hungary and Iraq.

This documentary was edited by Alison Cook.