Robotic device helps Reading man walk

It almost didn't happen.

As the clock ticked at Good Shepherd Penn Partners in Philadelphia on Thursday afternoon, Chris Kaag waited and waited.

They measured him, stretched his limbs and evaluated his range of motion until finally - nearly two hours behind schedule - the Reading man was given the green light to proceed.

"Chris, are you ready?" asked one of the four physical therapists in an outpatient therapy room at the rehabilitation facility's Ritttenhouse Campus.

"No," Kaag retorted with a dose of sarcasm and a smile from his wheelchair. "I just want to hang out here."

Taking his first steps in years with the help of the facility's new Ekso Bionics' exoskeleton robot, the former Marine and owner of CrossFit Berks and Corps Fitness in Wyomissing had only one word to say:

"Yeehaw!"

Kaag, founder of the IM ABLE Foundation, was among the first to try out the revolutionary new machine this week, as part of a weeklong special training through the Philadelphia health care system.

Strapped into the machine prior to taking his first steps, Kaag joked that it fit like a girdle.

His smile remained as the Ekso lifted him up into a standing position.

"It's hard for me to just relax and let the machine do what it's supposed to do," he said. "I started using a wheelchair about seven years ago, so it's been a little while. But it was cool, just to be up and taking a normal step."

At just 46 pounds, the lightweight Ekso is the first in the Philadelphia region and one of just six in the country.

"This is the cutting edge as far as what's out there for patient care," said Thomas Chaump of Good Shepherd Penn Partners. "This is the closest thing that's out there to walking today, as far as the natural gate and stepping. Psychologically, it helps patients to get up and see. It really is a visually 'Wow' moment."

Although he can stand with support, Kaag cannot walk on his own.

After collapsing during a run at the age of 21, he was diagnosed with adrenal myeloneuropathy, a condition that makes it impossible for the body to break down long-chain fatty acids.

"Because my condition is a little bit different from people who are paralyzed, they weren't sure if it (the machine) was going to work," he said. "Just because I'm confident in my abilities and I'm willing to try anything, I'm glad they were willing to take a chance with me. I'm glad that they let me give it a whirl."

Despite Thursday's success, Kaag's future with the Ekso machine remains undecided.

"I think it depends on what their recommendations are," he said.

But as of now, he said, "It doesn't sound like it's the best thing."

Like much of his life though, Kaag is focused on seeing that others can benefit from the machine.

"I think it's cool for me, but it's also cool for me to be able to tell the people I interact with, like our (IM ABLE) grant recipients," he said. "We have four people that I'm thinking about that I want to get down here to do it.

"They haven't walked in maybe 20-30 years, so I think it would have even more of an impact on them."

This article was originally published in The Reading Eagle on 04/13/2012.