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Robotic legs help patients learn to walk again

Seattle's Swedish Medical Center is the first in the country to strap the brain activated robot legs onto patients The robot is from a Japanese company called Cyberdyne. It's called a hybrid assistive limb, or HAL. (KOMO News)

SEATTLE -- Revolutionary technology is helping people who struggle to walk because of injury or disease get on their feet again.

Seattle's Swedish Medical Center is the first in the country to strap the brain activated robot legs onto patients. The robot is from a Japanese company called Cyberdyne and is called a hybrid assistive limb, or HAL.

When a Seattle spine surgeon first witnessed HAL, he wanted to try it on multiple sclerosis, stroke, and spinal cord injury patients here.

Lucinda Hauser is among the first to try it at Swedish Medical Center's Multiple Sclerosis Center.

Thirty years of multiple sclerosis has taken its toll on Hauser.

"It's honestly really hard to keep your spirits up," she said. "It seems like every year, every so many months, you're giving up a little bit more."

One by one, Hauser gave up running, rock climbing, and skiing, then she eventually gave up her career when she needed a walker to get around.

"I was thinking the walker was going to turn into a wheelchair which could turn into something even worse," Hauser said.

She agreed to help test HAL. Nearly every day for three months, her physical therapist attached sensors to her legs, fusing Lucinda's mind and muscles to the robot.

That's when the tough work began. The robotic legs help Lucinda walk, but they don't do the walking for her. It relies on her thoughts and pure effort.

"The brain sees, oh, my leg is moving when I try," explained Kim Kobata, a physical therapist. "They have to be focused on what they're doing and trying to use their muscles in order to get the robot to help them."

The movement and stride might seem clunky as the brain and body relearn how to work together.

When Hauser started, she couldn't lift her left leg on her own.

Now, she has stronger legs and confidence. She very rarely uses her walker now. And Hauser isn't the only one seeing dramatic results.

"Patient number one was completely wheelchair bound and her goal was to dance again," said Swedish spine surgeon Dr. Jens Chapman. "I don't think she's dancing yet, but she's walking again independently. And she was absolutely wheelchair bound before that."

Swedish was the first place in the U.S. to use HAL. The FDA recently approved HAL for use with spinal cord injury patients, and it is in clinical trial for Multiple Sclerosis patients. A rehabilitation center in Florida is now also deploying the robots. The team that brought the technology to Seattle sees first hand the difference in their patients.

"They're not the only ones getting excited and joyful. I get very excited and joyful," said Hauser's physical therapist, Ziadee Cambier. "I'm cheering."

HAL gives people the help they need to walk again. And it gives something else disease and injury tend to take away. It gives them hope.

"Hope is a very important part of care delivery. We can't be unrealistic, but hope is a very important thing," said Dr. Chapman. "I have been treating spine injury patients for many, many years. And seeing this hope, seeing this lighting up of the faces of the patients was just dramatic for me. Literally, for the first time, they're up and triggering, under their own control, thees devices. They start moving under their own power and it is a pretty remarkable thing to see."

"It's very huge for me," Hauser said. "It's been life changing for me."

Eight patients have gone through the study at Swedish, and researchers have funding for another 30 over the next year and a half.

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