Paralysed Runner to Walk 10K Using Robotic Exoskeleton

A robotic exoskeleton made by ReWalk is allowing Adam Gorlitsky, who is paralysed from the waist down, to walk again.

Ten years ago, Adam Gorlitsky severed his spinal cord in a car accident and became paralysed from the waist down. Doctors told Gorlitsky that he would never walk again.

Since then, he has used a wheelchair for mobility but on April 2, the 29-year-old plans to walk a 10K race in his hometown, with the help of a robotic exoskeleton.

Gorlitsky was a 19-year-old student when on December 30, 2005, he fell asleep for a few seconds at the wheel. He was by himself in the car, and it was around 8:30 p.m.

“My life literally changed within those three to five seconds,” Gorlitsky told Runner’s World by phone.

The former school cross country and track runner, who had run a 3:01 kilometre at age 15, was forced to adjust to a new normal. He spent several weeks in an intensive care unit, before being transferred to another facilitiy, where he spent about 10 weeks learning to live without the use of his legs.

Ten years later, Gorlitsky is learning to use his legs again. He first tried out a robotic exoskeleton in August, and it instantly opened his eyes to new possibilities.

“The second I stood up, I just felt like Avatar,” Gorlitsky said. “It wasn’t quite like that, obviously, but I just felt free. I decided, ‘I’ve got to do the 10K run. I’ve got to reclaim the lower half of my body.’”

By December, Gorlitsky had raised enough money to put in a down payment on his own personal robotic exoskeleton, which retails for US$83,000. On December 30, the 10-year anniversary of his accident, ReWalk presented Gorlitsky with his own exoskeleton, which he now uses two to three hours per day as he prepares for the 10K run.

Gorlitsky is crowdfunding, selling t-shirts, holding fundraising events, and seeking help from corporate sponsors to help him pay off the balance for his robotic exoskeleton. He has also started his own non-profit organisation, I Got Legs, through which he hopes to help others with disabilities.

Gorlitsky covers roughly 2.5 kilometres per hour while wearing the exoskeleton, and he expects that the 10K run could take him as much as five hours, similar to a marathon in duration.

He will be joined by a team of family, friends, and others in the race, including a technician, who will change the exoskeleton’s battery midrace, which Gorlitsky says could require a 15– to 20-minute break. The longest walk he’s done in training so far, limited by the exoskeleton’s battery life, is about five kilometres.

Also joining Gorlitsky in the race will be Boston Marathon, US bombing survivor Heather Abbott, who lost part of her left leg and has since started a foundation to help other amputees. Gorlitsky and Abbott met by chance in February when Abbott noticed one of Gorlitsky’s friends carrying his exoskeleton.

Gorlitsky tends to train in quiet places because staying upright while using the robotic exoskeleton requires a fair amount of concentration. Because he can’t feel his legs, any slight variation in the ground surface can throw him off. Adding in conversation increases the level of difficulty.

Though he has concerns about taking part in a 40,000-runner race, Gorlitsky will get a head start and those who walk with him will form a human wall around him.

Gorlitsky has gradually grown more comfortable maneuvering his exoskeleton in public, and handling people’s reactions.

“It’s all about how you wear it,” Gorlitsky said. “Initially, when people see me, they’re thrown off. But within 30 seconds to a minute, it’s like a normal thing, and I think that’s because I stand proud and tall.”

Though Gorlitsky has found other ways to stay fit over the past 10 years—he’s handcycled as much as 48 kilometres at a time—he’s enjoying training to achieve a big goal again.

“When I first stood up in [the exoskeleton], it didn’t feel like a physical fitness thing. It was more about being physically equal to everybody,” Gorlitsky said. “But the more I started training, I was like, ‘Wow, I really feel like I’m back at it, like I was in school.’ And then I really started regaining this appreciation of what fitness truly is, and that’s taking control of your body, not your body taking control of you.”

If the 10K run goes well, Gorlitsky is thinking about doing other races.

But first, Gorlitsky is focused on crossing his first finish line.

“It’s going to mean a lot,” Gorlitsky said. “I tell myself I’m not going to cry, but it might happen.”

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