Saturday 19 October 2019

Exoskeleton suit gives hope for the future

Jessica Farry reports on No Barriers' attempts to help people to walk once again

As The Sligo Champion arrives at Cheshire Home on Friday morning, Geraldine Lavelle is strapped into the exoskeleton suit that is going to help her to walk.

With the help of the suit, Geraldine can walk again. But for Geraldine it's not just about being able to walk.

Geraldine injured her spinal chord after a cycling accident in 2013 and is paralysed from the waist down.

Her determination means that she will never give up, and with the help of No Barriers and their exoskeleton suit, she not only walks again, but she gets some necessary exercise that she would not be able to do.

"That was really good. It's hard work but it's mentally quite fulfilling. It's lovely to actually be vertical and not be looking up at people when I'm speaking to them," she told The Sligo Champion.

She says the use of the suit is a big help to her physically, as it means she can breathe more clearly.

"That's about my sixth time using it. I'd love to keep using it if it comes to Sligo. Just even the aerobic feeling of helping your lungs and helping you breathe clearer. It's definitely a form of cardio and exercise and it helps maintain all that.

"It would be good to use it on a regular basis, it would benefit you more than every now and then because you would be used to the feeling. I would stand daily though so that's good for me."

No Barriers are a not-for-profit organisation based in Letterkenny. They own only one of a handful of these suits in Ireland. Their suit is the only community based one.

Their suit is available to hire at the cost of €60 an hour, which means that it is more widely available to anyone who made it. They recommend using it once to twice a week, but no more.

Stephen McNally of No Barriers explained how the suit works: "It's a robotics exoskeleton so you place somebody in the suit, you fix them in and it allows people to walk.. Part of their walking programme will involve pre-gait stuff so you would be working on balance or transfer. It also allows different walking programmes within that so you're working on quality of gait all the time, quality of walking all the time so it could be weight transferring, heel/toe pressure and so on."

The suit owned by No Barriers is the only one of its kind in the country. It has a combination of systems. This suit has both a movement system and a functional electrical simulation.

"The movement system is the suit. The simulation is synced with the suit so every time a patient initiates some movement, it gets some simulation. That's vitally important to someone who has a neurological injury because you're creating this link between the injury and the brain and you're trying to create new pathways for that. That's functional simulation, useful for stroke patients of spinal chord injuries."

The use of a device like this can have massive health benefits to someone with a spinal chord injury like Geraldine. It's not just about the walking.

Stephen explained: "The walking quality is not as important as the physiological benefits and the psychological benefits. The physiological side includes looking at bone density, spinal chord patients have a massive problem with bone density, overtime, reduction of spasticity and tone with the machine, you're also looking at the efficiency of the heart and lungs as part of that. All the things that exercise brings to you and I, the suit will bring to these people."

There's no doubt that using the device is tough work for anyone. And while the physical benefits may be well documented, the psychological benefits are just as important.

"The psychological benefits are massive, if you think that somebody spends their life in a chair looking up at people, to actually stand up and look people in the eyes is huge. It's powerful. When you take it for granted that we can walk around everyday and do these things automatically and it's taken away from you then and all of a sudden you can't do it anymore.

"This is a powerful situation to be in to be able to get up and go walking. When the weather is better you can go walking outside and some people might not have done that for ten years. That enhances your mood, a lot of patients with neurological problems are at risk of depression so this can help with that.

"It's a feeling of hope rather than just being placed in a chair with no more rehab. That's what happens. The reason this was started up was because of a gap in services.

"People were having their injuries, staying in hospital, rehabbing as much as they could, or perceived to be with the manpower available and then they were left to go home. We just felt that there was too big of a gap there. We felt that a lot of people who were being sent home to do little still had potential."

The No Barriers Foundation hope that by giving people the opportunity to use this exoskeleton suit that they are giving people hope, hope that in the future they may be ready for whatever medical advancements may come our way.

"For somebody that can't walk and maybe hasn't got the potential to walk now they may have in the future. Medicine pushes on. If you're not ready for that then it will never happen for you. If you're not a candidate for that in the future it will never happen.

"So the suit keeps the heart and lungs going, it keeps bone density, it does all the things that we need to do to function. So if something does change, especially in younger people like Geraldine, in 10 years time then Geraldine will be ready for it because she has done all this rehab. The likelihood is that if you don't exercise and do the right things then they will deteriorate over time, the same as you and I. Most likely it could hasten their longevity.

"We're giving you the tools to try and improve things but you still need to go home and do whatever you've been told you need to work on at home."

More information is available on the No Barriers Foundation on the website at

Sligo Champion