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DOWNEY - Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center became the center of the health care world Monday.
It started when 37-year old Agnes Fejerdy strapped the hospital's new ReWalk exoskeleton robot on while sitting astride a chair. A crowd of nearly 200 television reporters, videographers, photographers, clinicians and other Rancho staff had gathered outside the hospital's Support Services Annex to see if this advanced technology device, which uses robotics, motion sensors, electronic controls and computers, could really help Agnes walk.
Many in the crowd were skeptical, because they had seen earlier devices fail the walking test over the years. But there was also optimism that the ReWalk would be different-perhaps for the first time a robotic system would do the seemingly impossible and help a paraplegic person walk.
Agnes touched the watch-like controller on her wrist and the crowd gasped as she almost instantly rose to a standing position. When she touched the controller again, the device beeped five times and then Agnes' right foot moved forward. Then her left foot moved, then her right, then her left, and suddenly she was walking down the sidewalk next to the Annex.
In the crowd, jaws of patients, staff and even legendary physician Dr. Jacquelin Perry dropped while television videographers and print photographers scrambled to capture images of the unfolding scene. Dr. Mary Stauffer and many other civic leaders were there to witness Rancho's latest technological success.
News of Rancho's latest major step forward was seen by tens of millions of people on thousands of televisions stations and major news networks on every continent across the globe.
The Rancho ReWalk story was featured on Los Angeles channels 2, 5, 7, 9 and 11 as well as Korean Broadcasting, and transmitted throughout the world by ABC, CBS, CNN and FOX. In addition, Supervisor Don Knabe posted a video of the event on YouTube, and Los Angeles County television also did a major story. The Long Beach Press Telegram ran the story on page one of its Tuesday edition, and even the Huffington Post featured the Rancho ReWalk story.
Rancho received more press coverage around the world on Monday than the hospital has received in the last 10 years combined. But those who watched most intently were Rancho patients with paralysis, who had the largest stake in the proceedings.
"It was unbelievable, but I saw it happen," said Rancho patient Julio Caro, potentially one of the first patients who might use the new technology in a major clinical study the hospital will begin this summer. "I can't wait to try it...it's incredible that I might be able to walk again!"
Other patients were speechless and their hearts were full as they watched Agnes walk...and walk...and walk. Just like Julio, they could finally see a pathway to walking again.
The story of this remarkable Rancho event started two years ago, when Argo Medical Technologies CEO Dr. Amit Goffer came to Rancho to demonstrate a ReWalk prototype. Then Rancho Chief Medical Officer Mindy Aisen visited Argo at its headquarters in Israel and discussions of bringing the ReWalk to Rancho began in earnest.
"We wanted the ReWalk, because in our view it is the most advanced exoskeleton system on the market," Dr. Aisen said. "Beginning this summer, Rancho will conduct the most comprehensive clinical trial for any exoskeleton device, and we hope to see dramatic improvement in the overall health of our patients as a result of being able to walk again."
Last week, Argo donated two ReWalk exoskeleton robots worth $180,000 to the Rancho Los Amigos Foundation, making Rancho the first hospital in the Western United States to have this technology, and the only hospital in the world to have the system donated by Argo.
"We are very thankful for this donation, which is just another example of how Rancho is moving the art and science of rehabilitation medicine forward for patients," Rancho Los Amigos Foundation Board President Connie Martinez said.
"We are very proud to partner with Rancho because of its long heritage of leadership in bringing the latest technology to its patient care programs," said Argo Vice President of Sales and Marketing Pete Escallier. "We have the highest regard for the hospital's clinicians and the miracles that are the hallmark of this world-famous hospital. We are donating our system to just one hospital in the world, and we selected Rancho not only because of its clinical excellence, but also because it is the safety net for one of the largest populations of paralyzed patients in the world."
"The ReWalk is an example of how Rancho combines emerging technology with creativity to make possible what had previously been considered impossible for our patients," said Rancho CEO Jorge Orozco. "We are creating the premier medical home for patients with spinal cord injuries, as well as patients who have experienced strokes, brain injuries and other life-altering diseases and conditions."
The ReWalk is currently approved by the FDA for hospital settings, and a smaller version of the system is expected to soon be approved for home use.
Rancho's ReWalk research effort will be conducted by an all-star team of Rancho physicians, therapists and researchers, who plan to publish their findings.
"Patients will do comprehensive testing of the system, and we will also do significant research in our incomparable Pathokinesiology laboratory under the direction of Drs. Sara Mulroy and Philip Requejo," Dr. Aisen said.
After most of the press had packed up their cameras and microphones, Rancho moved indoors to conduct a special briefing and demonstration for community members, Rancho clinicians and patients.
After Jorge and Mindy explained the potential of the ReWalk system for the future of rehabilitation medicine, Agnes was once again poised to walk for a new audience. Although she had walked for more than an hour outside, she felt very little fatigue because the ReWalk carries all but four pounds of its 44-pound weight. She felt only the battery pack in the device's backpack.
"ReWalk has changed my daily activity level, changed my body, and improved my digestive system," Agnes said. "To be able to stand face-to-face and walk independently has completely changed my life," she said.
Now it was time for her to change the lives of the patients in the room.
"Watching the ReWalk demonstration was absolutely amazing," said Beverly Mathis, one of many community leaders in attendance. "But, most interesting was watching the reaction of Rancho's many patients in wheelchairs. They were totally spellbound as they leaned forward in their chairs to observe."
As Agnes rose, the crowd began to clap, and as she began walking to her right, the applause turned to cheers. The patients watching Agnes' heroics couldn't take their eyes off the miraculous scene they were witnessing. Many simply stared in astonishment. Others had tears streaming down their faces as Agnes walked past them.
"We can only imagine what they must have been thinking," Bev said.
As Agnes neared the end of her long journey around the room, the cheers turned into a roar, becoming louder with each step she took. When she finished, the cheers reverberated throughout the room as she proudly stood and smiled.
Although it was a triumphant day for Rancho, Argo and Agnes, it was even more meaningful for Rancho's patients, whose hopes of walking again appeared much closer to coming true than ever before. The light of hope was burning brightly in their eyes as they looked toward the future, perched on the threshold of a dream.
For further information, call the Rancho Los Amigos Foundation at (562) 401-7053 or visit rancho.org, facebook.com/rancholosamigosrehab or twitter.com/ranchorehab.
Published: May 03, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 03