News

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Just 37 slow steps – but a major leap forward for paralysed jockey Jonjo

Nicola Anderson

Published 15/07/2014|02:30

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Jonjo Bright with jockeys  Tim Carroll, Jamie Codd, Bryan Cooper, Chief Executive of the Jockeys association Andrew Coonan, Barry Geraghty and the Esko Suit.
Picture: Lorraine O'Sullivan
Jonjo Bright with jockeys Tim Carroll, Jamie Codd, Bryan Cooper, Chief Executive of the Jockeys association Andrew Coonan, Barry Geraghty and the Esko Suit. Picture: Lorraine O'Sullivan

ALL the way down in the car from the family farm in Co Antrim, injured jockey Jonjo Bright was trying to remind himself that he might not be able to do this.

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Trying to lessen the disappointment for his hopeful parents and for himself, Jonjo (20) said his injury was too high up, that his upper body might not be strong enough. But when the moment came, he was more than ready.

And his parents joyfully counted every single one of the 37 painstaking steps their son was able to take for the first time since the accident in March 2013 that left him paralysed from the neck down, though with some movement in his arms.

It was a miracle made possible by science. A technological feat straight off the illustrated pages of ‘The Bionic Man’.

Just 37 slow and difficult steps but one giant leap for Jonjo and people like him everywhere, as the suit was unveiled at the RACE Academy in Kildare town.

Later we watched injured student Jack Kavanagh from Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, who was paralysed from the chest down after crashing into a wave while on holiday in August 2012, take his own turn in the suit, listening to the whoosh of hydraulics and watching his slow but steady progress.

It was as moving and as significant as watching a baby take its first steps, opening up a whole new world of possibilities.

For him it was his third time to don the suit, and as his mother Elmarie observed him a single tear slid down her cheek.

“It's just fantastic,” she said.

The wearable Ekso suit allows people who have been paralysed through injury or stroke to stand upright and, through motors and hydraulics, walk around and to build up the muscles so that they can work towards the goal of walking unaided when medical breakthroughs finally allow it.

“It was brilliant,” said Jonjo, looking elated though pale after his efforts.

“I didn't expect to be able to use it.

“This is a huge step forward – this would be the biggest step for me so far,” he said. “If that's the future, that's a huge thing for me.”

And so yesterday was a major moment.

Asked if it had been an emotional moment for his parents, John and Jayne, Jonjo said there had been “big smiles”.

“I didn't see anybody cry. It's nothing to cry about,” he said.

His father John Bright said the same thing. There had been too many tears shed. “No more sad days,” he declared. “He'll not be in a chair all his life,” he said.

Patrick McStravick, an Ulsterman now living in California, told how the Ekso suit had started out as a product to allow soldiers to carry large amounts of military equipment effortlessly. But when the sister of one of his colleagues suffered a spinal injury, the company's focus shifted.

The company's Irish promoters, Jane Evans and Wendy Vard of Rolling Ball, now want to introduce 17 of the suits for Irish users all over the country. But the cost, at €150,000 is prohibitive.

They said they met then Health Minister James Reilly four weeks ago. He told them that the health service didn't have the €2m necessary to fund the purchase.

But he told them to get their message out there and to approach the National Lottery, which they have also done.

They now hope that private individuals will become interested and that fundraising efforts will get under way.

And then lives will truly be transformed.

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