By Debbie Gregory.
In 2004, Eugene Simpson Jr, 26, was an Army tank commander with the1st Battalion, 77th Armor, based in Schweinfurt, Germany. His unit deployed to Iraq to help train the Iraqi Army and conduct patrol missions.
One day his patrol unit was struck by the force of an improvised explosive device as they drove by it. He was ejected from the vehicle and badly injured. He was flown back to Germany for multiple surgeries. The prognosis was not good.
Simpson, an athletic soldier, was paralyzed from the waist down with a severed spine. As is often the case for many disabled Veterans who have returned home from war, the father of two became divorced within the year.
“Once you get home, someone has to make things accessible for you, and you have to find your way around it,” he recalls. “And that was a little difficult.”
Simpson was re-married in 2013 to his wife, Aerial. He adjusted to his “new normal” with the help and support of his family.
While at McGuire for an annual checkup, Simpson saw another veteran on one of the exoskeletons. “It looked awesome,” Simpson said. “And my head was rushing and I was thinking how amazing it would be to stand up and walk around a little bit again.”
Simpson, who now is 40, was accepted as a volunteer in one of the VA‘s multicenter Cooperative Study Programs based on new powered exoskeleton technology that can provide eligible paraplegics a chance at a better quality of life.
The program is based upon pilot research by Dr. Ann Spungen of the Bronx VA Medical Center’s Center of Excellence on Medical Consequences of Spinal Cord Injury.
“Exoskeletons allow upright ambulation in the household and community for persons with SCI who otherwise lack functional ambulation,” said Dr. Lance Goetz, site investigator for the Richmond McGuire study.
Simpson was already in shape, so he had very little preparation to do for the study.
The FDA approved exoskeleton, called the ReWalk 6.0, is a wearable robotic exoskeleton that provides powered hip and knee motion for independent, controlled walking while mimicking the natural gait of the legs.
The ReWalk 6.0 not only improves mental, social and physical health by standing and walking, but also helps overcome bowel and bladder management difficulties.
“The importance of the study [to me] is just that it’s giving guys that are paralyzed just the opportunity to feel normal and do the things they couldn’t do because of the wheelchair. People don’t realize that, just one or two steps, it changes guy’s lives. Mentally it can do amazing things.”
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