This article was updated at 2 p.m. July 2 to more accurately describe Dr. Ed Farrar’s paralysis.
WENATCHEE — Friends and co-workers jokingly called them “RoboDocs.”
Strapped separately into a bionic walking machine, Dr. Ed Farrar and Patricia Collins, a doctor of physical therapy, demonstrated how high-tech medicine can help paralyzed patients walk and stroke victims rewire their brains.
Taking turns, the two whirred and beeped back-and-forth across a rehab room at Central Washington Hospital on Tuesday in hopes of convincing medical staff and community members that the Ekso GT — a computerized exoskeleton — can help the recovery of patients with spinal cord injuries, stroke damage, multiple sclerosis, ALS, and other neuromuscular disorders.
The pair of docs were self-described “guinea pigs” in a presentation by machine maker Ekso Bionics of Richmond, Calif., a demo that doubled as the kickoff for a local fundraising effort — the Walk Again campaign — by the Central Washington Hospital Foundation. The effort would raise $157,000 to buy an Ekso for CWH’s rehab facility.
Farrar is paralyzed from the chest down from a bike-car accident that occurred five years ago. The fully-abled Collins wanted to know what a patient would feel when strapped into the device.
“We once thought that when the spinal cord was severed that the game was over,” said Farrar. “But now we realized the spinal cord can revive itself in ways we never thought imaginable.”
Farrar, an orthopedic surgeon who now consults, told the gathering that exercising the spinal cord — using machines like the Ekso — can help boost the regenerative abilities of nerves and muscles.
“Some people might look at this and call it a miracle,” he said. “For those of us who live in a wheelchair — to stand up and see yourself in a mirror, to look your friends in the eye — well, it’s an overwhelming feeling.”
The Ekso bionic exoskeleton — described by the company as a “wearable robot” — allows patients with weak or paralyzed lower bodies to walk with a fairly natural gait. A patient using the machine can, at its speediest, take about one step every second.
Farrar and Collins described the machine as providing physical support.
Susan Price, regional manager for Ekso in the Northwest, said her company’s device evolved from military technology called The HULC, or Human Universal Load Carrier. That machine was designed for soldiers to carry heavy loads in the field and is still being refined by military contractor Lockheed Martin.
Now, she said, that technology is the foundation for a new breed of rehabilitation machines for improving mobility in accident and stroke victims, and those with neuromuscular disorders.
The $150,000 price tag “isn’t really that expensive,” she said, “when you consider how many different types of patients it can help.”
Abel Noah, executive director of the CWH Foundation, said the total cost to bring an Ekso machine — along with its specialized training — to the local hospital would be around $157,000.
The Foundation has already applied for a matching grant of $75,000 from the Bridging Bionics Foundation, a Colorado nonprofit that promotes bionic technology. And in just the last week, said Noah, the Foundation has raised $21,900 toward purchase of the machine.
“We’re hoping to reach our goal fairly quickly,” he said. “People are seeing the value of this machine and giving their support.”
Farrar said that Wenatchee’s Ekso would be the only one in the Northwest. “It’ll help put us on the medical map,” he said. “I can envision patients from around the Northwest coming here to try it out — following their hopes for improvement.”