Paralysed man takes big steps forward

Steve Caines of Orewa, who is paralysed from the chest down, has trained for 18 months to use an innovative machine that enables him to walk. Photo, Cheril Clarke

Since a motorcycle accident left Steve Caines of Orewa paralysed from the chest down, 12 years ago, he has been fighting to get back on his feet.

An innovative battery-powered system called ReWalk is helping him achieve that and Steve is the first person in NZ to come close to being able to use it independently.

The 47-year-old engineer has become a familiar sight, and made many friends among other park users, as he takes long walks through Western Reserve in the ReWalk, accompanied by a physiotherapist.

Eighteen months ago, Mobility Solutions Centre manager Shanon Arnold saw a demonstration of the ReWalk – designed in Israel, it is a relatively light exoskeleton which attaches to the outside of the legs and is driven by four electric motors.

Shanon purchased two of the machines, which cost around $115,000 each, and arranged training for several physiotherapists, including some at Neuro Rehab Results, so that they can assist people to use the ReWalk. Steve was one of the first people to volunteer to take part in the trial run by Neuro Rehab Results and he has been learning to use the ReWalk ever since.

Neuro Rehab Results director Suzie Mudge was one of Steve’s first physios and is impressed at how hard he has worked. She says he is the first to get to the stage of walking in the unit outside and is almost ready to go solo.

She says the unit would benefit many New Zealanders unable to walk as a consequence of injury or illness. “It enables people who don’t have movement in their legs to stand and walk. The ReWalk has a stair climbing function that helps people negotiate curbs and stairs, so they can use it to walk in the community and other places that are difficult to access in a wheelchair.”

Mastering callipers and crutches, and now ReWalk, has required the fitness, determination and commitment of an athlete and Steve has given it 100 percent, setting himself a series of goals, then moving on to the next one.

The ReWalk is controlled through body position, which is very different from walking with callipers. “To walk 300 metres on callipers takes 40 minutes and is exhausing,” Steve says. “The same distance on the ReWalk takes 14 minutes and is not as tiring.” He says the maximum distance he can walk in callipers is 700 metres, but in the ReWalk he can currently do 3km.

Shanon says a big benefit of ReWalk is that while callipers put a lot of strain on the body and can wear out joints and muscles, ReWalk provides more support. “It decreases medical costs such as pain medication, long term, because you are stretching muscles and increasing bone density,” Shanon says. However, he says the psychological benefits are what people who use the system overseas have commented on most. “They talk about the joy of being able to stand up and give someone a hug,” he says.

Steve agrees, saying he wants the advantages that able bodied people have. “There are huge health benefits from being upright and psychological benefits from being able to talk face to face with people,” he says.

Steve has free use of the ReWalk while the trial continues, but what happens next will depend on funding which could come from a range of sources, including, ACC or the Ministry of Health.

Steve says the machine has been life changing. “It has taken me places I never thought possible after the accident and I’d like to thank Shanon for making it possible,” he says.

Hibiscus Matters thanks Cheril Clarke for her assistance with this story.


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