Monday 21 January 2019

Student (20) who was paralysed in freak accident take her first steps thanks to bionic suit

Jennifer is now able to walk again with the robotic suit. Photo: BBC Newsline
Jennifer is now able to walk again with the robotic suit. Photo: BBC Newsline

Ivan Little

Courageous Jennifer Smyth, who has defied medics who said the quadriplegic ex-gymnast would never get back on her feet again.

For now, with a little help from her friends - and a lot of assistance from a futuristic robotic system - Jennifer is taking her first steps since she was paralysed in a freak accident in the gym four years ago.

Jennifer (20) - who was once tipped as a gymnastics star of the future - broke her neck as she landed after a routine vault exercise in September 2013.

"We don't know exactly what went wrong but Jennifer crushed her spinal cord and we were warned that she would never walk again," said her mother Pamela. "But we are just so grateful that she survived at all.

"It could have been so much worse.

"And her amazing personality has meant that she thrived in the face of adversity."

Jennifer's friends and family rallied round after the accident to raise money to help with the purchase of wheelchairs and other crucial equipment.

But the most remarkable turnaround for Jennifer came in the shape of a robotic exoskeleton last month.

And that is essentially a cleverly designed bionic suit that helps plucky Jennifer to stand again and walk with the aid of her crutches.

The device is officially called a ReWalk 6.0, but Jennifer calls it her life-changer.

It was delivered to her three weeks ago at her university in Birmingham where she is studying.

Not surprisingly Jennifer described her 'bionic legs' as her best ever Christmas present but the arrival of the ReWalk was also emotional because it was a poignant link to her father, who died nearly two years ago.

That's because the £60,000 needed to buy the suit was mainly raised at a spectacular function organised at Gleneagles Golf Club in Scotland by her late father's firm Landmarc Solutions.

Pamela, who says the generosity of people has been magnificent, says she's overjoyed that Jennifer is the first person in Northern Ireland to have the exoskeleton that provides powered hip and knee motion to people with spinal cord injuries.

"The suit is controlled by a smart watch," says Pamela, who can scarcely believe her eyes as she watches her "wee marvel" getting about their home after the fitting of the ReWalk, which takes up to 10 minutes.

Jennifer says she "can hardly find the words to describe how much this has impacted on me".

"I never imagined that I would own a ReWalk," she said. "I can't thank people enough for their support.

"It's great to be able to be on the same eye level with everyone again and I'm even taller than my mother."

Jennifer, who is returning to her studies in England, has personal assistants to help her.

And typical of the selflessness of this brave young woman, Jennifer, who's in year two of her product design studies, plans to use her skills to help others after her graduation.

"I really hope to design my own wheelchairs and exoskeletons in the future. It would be nice to give something back," says Jennifer, who works closely with physiotherapists and goes hand-cycling to build up her strength.

"But I also enjoy doing normal studenty-type things with my friends."

A Facebook page called Jennifer's Journey to Walk Again has been set up for the public to keep following her story.

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