Photograph by Christopher T. Martin
David Carter smiles as he strolls. Though he is followed by a coterie of physical therapists and mechanical engineers, the room is silent except for the soft whirring of his robotic legs.
Carter, twenty-seven, is paralyzed from the mid-back down, the result of a 2010 motorcycle accident. He’s confined to a wheelchair and, by all reasonable estimates, should never walk again. And yet here he is. Walking.
For that, you first can thank Michael Goldfarb, Ph.D., head of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Intelligent Mechatronics. In the nineties, he tested a prototype device to get the paralyzed walking, but it would take more than a decade for the technology to catch up. Finally, in 2007—with the use of microelectronics (such as those found in microcomputers and the iPhone)—scientific concept met technical reality.
Next, thank Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, Goldfarb’s clinical partner. Shepherd, long recognized as a leader in spinal care, was, Goldfarb says, the obvious choice to introduce a human element to his decidedly superhuman process. Together, they brought Goldfarb’s idea to prototype within nine months.
What they developed is Indego, an “exoskeleton” that straps onto a patient’s hips and legs, operating much like a Segway: When your balance point is forward, you walk; when it’s neutral, you sit.
Three years, countless tweaks, and at least a dozen patient tests later, the second generation will be here at year’s end. Smaller, lighter, and easier to use, the newest Indego even has an iPhone app for therapists to monitor and control its settings remotely.
Multisite clinical trials are set to begin next year and will be overseen by Shepherd and Parker Hannifin, the company that bought the rights to manufacture and sell Indego. If all goes well, the FDA will approve the device for institutional use by 2015 and private use by 2016.
If, as Indego’s inventor, Goldfarb is a true believer, then Claire Hartigan is his disciple. A physical therapist, research coordinator, and twenty-three-year Shepherd Center veteran, Hartigan rattles off the health benefits for Indego users, which range from improved bowel function to increased flexibility and decreased muscle spasticity.
But the benefits extend beyond that. There is something fundamentally human about standing on your own two feet, a fact Hartigan seems to understand instinctively. “David has a two-year-old,” she says. “Someday he’ll be able to stand, not sit, with the other fathers and watch his son play baseball.”
In fact, a version of this scene has already played out—after Carter’s first Indego test session, he asked the staff to let him stay in the exoskeleton until his dad arrived at Shepherd. For the first time in three years, the two men stood and looked one another in the eye.
This article originally appeared in our November 2013 issue.