Wesley Farwell can't fully feel his steps when walking with the help of a robotic harness, but the paralyzed Marine veteran is trusting the device will get him where he wants to go.
"What they teach you in the military, if you're repelling or fast-roping out of a helicopter, is to trust your equipment," Farwell said. "Easy to say. Harder to do. You've just got to trust that its going to work."
Farwell demonstrated the latest exoskeleton last week at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, which increasingly is using robotic assist devices to help paralyzed veterans maintain strength and maximize mobility. Nonprofit SoldierStrong donated the Indego exoskeleton to increase the hospital's physical therapy capacity.
"Nearly half of all spinal cord injuries happen to people between the ages of 16 and 30," said Chris Meek, who cofounded SoldierStrong in 2009 to provide care packages to soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq before the organization shifted focus to helping soldiers at home. "The fact that so many young people will suffer such injuries means that thousands more people each year will live with the effects of these injuries for decades."
Farwell, 30, gets around his house in Shakopee in a wheelchair, but has walked 1,000 steps in one therapy session at the VA with the exoskeleton. He suffered a severe spinal cord injury as a result of a motorcycle accident in March 2022, and said he can only feel a tingling sensation in his legs.
Walking with the device "feels like you're floating in the deep end of a pool," Farwell said. He can increase the walking pace by leaning forward and stop by leaning backward, but the therapist also has remote control. He uses a walker but said he is hoping to progress to arm braces and then nothing at all for support while using the device.
"You feel your body moving forward, but you're not feeling your legs moving forward," he said.
The father of two said he is hoping to gain enough mastery of the device that he will qualify for a home version, so he can be more mobile and provide more care of his six-year-old daughter and eight-month-old son.
"It's not only a physical thing, but it's a huge mental thing as a dad and a husband," he said.
VA leaders said the latest exoskeleton will allow for more productive therapy sessions because it is easier to put on veterans and to customize to their gait and mobility.
"In order to provide this care consistently, we not only need a group of talented and dedicated clinicians but we also need access to the most advanced clinical tools available," said Dr. Michael Armstrong, the hospital's chief of staff.