A MAN who was able to stand upright and walk for the first time in 15 years thanks to a groundbreaking treatment, said the best thing about the experience was being able to hug his girlfriend.
Padraig Hanafin (31) took his first steps with the aid of a bionic exoskeleton under the supervision of two physiotherapists and a representative from Helpful Steps at the Elite Gym in Cork.
Paralysed from the chest down as a result of a fall from a wall in the family garden at Ballyferriter, Co Kerry when he was 16, Padraig had heard about the breakthrough treatment through the Rehab group, where he works in the communications department.
Padraig was assessed by Helpful Steps as a possible candidate to try the suit, and after a shaky start, he walked with its aid for half an hour.
"I walked 206 steps and it was very emotional," said Padraig.
"The best thing for me was standing upright and being able to hug my girlfriend Anna properly and to look just like any ordinary couple walking down the street.
"It was a very emotional experience walking again, strange but familiar at the same time and exciting as well," he added.
"When I left Rehab 15 years ago, I thought I'd never walk again but this has made me think how far things have come on in those 15 years.
"Imagine what could happen in another 15 years - and I'll only be 46 then," he said.
Padraig says he was given hope by an operation carried out in Poland last year, in which nasal cells inserted into the spine of a paralysed man restored bladder and bowel function and some leg movement.
Padraig graduated from University College Cork with a BA in Modern Irish and Hispanic Studies, later completing an MA, and another MA in Film Studies.
"If I was asked would I turn back the clock if I could, I'd have to think long and hard about it," he said.
"The two years were tough all right but since then I've led a busy and fruitful life. Now I slip into my wheelchair the way anyone would a pair of shoes, and I go off to work."