Ellie O’Byrne meets a young man who is pushing the boundaries of disability by fundraising for an exoskeleton which allows wheelchair users to walk again — with and without support.
His bionic exoskeleton may not be quite as hi-tech as Ironman’s, but Nathan Kirwan’s iron will and heroism are certainly going to be put to the test over the coming weeks. The Corkman will attempt to walk 55,000 steps – equivalent to a marathon – to raise the funds to buy his walking support system — the exoskeleton — so that he and other wheelchair users in Cork and beyond can continue to benefit.
Nathan was 24 and had just finished his college degree when he fell from a tree in June 2013. The fall severed his spinal cord and left him quadriplegic. Physiotherapy and adjustment to his new life left him feeling lost:
“When you have a spinal cord injury, you’re pretty much going back to the very start and relearning everything. It’s like pressing a reset button and you have to figure out where you want to go all over again. I decided I’m going to start with strength.
“I realised that the only way to get my life back in some way, shape or form was to become as independent as possible, and that the best way to get independence was to become strong so that I could get in and out of bed myself, out of the car myself and dress myself,” Nathan said.
Introduced to the exoskeleton suit – known as Lazarus – last December, Nathan hasn’t looked back since. The suit is currently the only one of its kind in Ireland and is based in the Elite Gym in the Marina Commercial Park. It’s specially designed to aid mobility and allows people with various conditions, from MS to quadriplegia, to experience the benefits of walking.
In some cases, such as for stroke survivors, Lazarus can be used to actually teach people to walk again:
“If I was trying to teach you how to walk that would be really difficult,” Gym owner, physiotherapist and kickboxing champion Colin O’Shaughnessy said.
“There are 256 muscles involved. You learned as a kid but now you wouldn’t do it. With the exoskeleton we are able to get people’s muscle memory firing so they can relearn.”
Although this isn’t an option for Nathan, the health benefits of mobility have been enormous.
“My breathing is better and my muscle tone has increased,” Nathan said. “The exoskeleton gives people in wheelchairs the ability to get up and get the benefits of walking. It increases blood flow and bowel and bladder functions work better too.”
Five-times world kickboxing champion, Colin is Nathan’s ally in the Walk With Me Challenge, and as his assistant, will take every step of the way with Nathan; although people with some conditions can walk fully unaided in Lazarus, people who are quadriplegic need an assistant to help them maintain their balance.
As Nathan gets strapped into Lazarus to demonstrate the bionic suit in action, he smiles and jokes with Colin. Not only are there physical benefits from using the suit, it’s quite clear that there are plenty of emotional and psychological ones too.
The suit is empowering, giving people with restricted mobility the chance to quite literally get back on their feet.
“You have this feeling of being a little bit more powerful when you’re being strapped into it,” Nathan said. “You know that in a few minutes, you’re going to be on your feet. It’s amazing to be able to get up out of your wheelchair.”
With Colin’s aid, and crutches to help him support his upper body, he stands up. Gathering himself, he looks around, smiling. Then they’re off, one step at a time.
The Walk With Me Challenge started on the 3rd of May when Nathan took the first 982 steps of his challenge at the Red Bull Run in Dun Laoghaire in Dublin. Since then, he’s taken over 5,000 steps, in the gym with Colin, on the streets, and in Mahon Point shopping centre.
Nathan is asking for sponsorship of €2 per step. This, in combination with private donations, a soon-to-be-announced golf classic and a charity ball at City Hall in October, (where Nathan will take the final steps of his marathon), should raise the €150,000 needed to buy Lazarus and keep it in Cork.
Lazarus is based on a lightweight version of bionic suits developed by the US military and used for tasks such as helping to lift heavy loads. Battery operated and worn over the clothes, it is easily adjustable to users of different heights and body shapes.
The suit, one of just 60 in the world adapted for use in physiotherapy, is currently on deposit from the manufacturer in California. It must be paid for in full by the end of the year or else it will have to go back. Nathan and Colin are hoping that people won’t be shy if they see them out and about on the streets of Cork in the coming weeks.
“I’d love people to come up and have a look at the equipment and to see how it works. I do walk quite slowly so I don’t expect people to walk along behind me, but I’d love if people came up to say hi,” Nathan said.
Nathan starts to feel tired after around 600 steps, but has set himself the gruelling task of building up to 1,500-2,000 steps per walk, an enormous achievement considering he managed just 17 steps the first time he tried the suit five months ago.
“Nathan’s doing the majority of the work himself; he has to move his hips and his core. It’s as hard as you or I running a marathon,” Colin said.
The strength, resilience and optimistic outlook that have helped Nathan adjust to life after his accident are evident when he talks about his challenge. “It’s going to be physically demanding but I’m looking forward to it and really hoping to raise the money so that people can continue to get the benefits of it. We have people with MS or strokes using it, people travelling from all over the country,” he said.
Nathan and Colin have launched a charity called Helpful Steps. People can donate online via their website. If they raise more than their goal, they hope to be able to help to buy suits for other parts of Ireland. Travelling long distances isn’t practical for many people with mobility issues, and to really experience health benefits, Lazarus needs to be used regularly.
“If the money keeps coming, we’re going to keep buying them! My hope is that this is only the first one in Ireland and I do hope to continue and to try to get many around the country. The technology’s out there so let’s try and use it to its full advantage and get access to it for everyone,” Nathan said.
At the moment, 15 people with a range of different conditions travel to use Lazarus in Cork and this number is growing as news of the suit spreads. The social side of the gym has also become an important part of Nathan’s life. While he agrees that Irish physiotherapists should have access to exoskeletons like Lazarus, he feels that they work well in the non-clinical environment of the gym. “There’s people coming in for their own reasons; different sports, different injuries, different goals,” he said. “That makes it more enjoyable. Everyone needs to be healthy to have a good quality of life. Just because you’re sitting in a wheelchair doesn’t mean that there aren’t exercises that you can do.”
Although the gym will need to charge for the use of the suit, Nathan would like to see Helpful Steps continue to fundraise in order to subsidise the cost of sessions.
“People with disabilities often don’t have much money and unless you’re using it regularly it isn’t as beneficial. It is a very expensive piece of equipment and there is training involved, but money won’t be a reason why people can’t use it.”
For Colin, there’s an enormous sense of satisfaction in helping people to walk.
“We had a guy here who walked for the first time in fifteen years,” he said. “He came here reasonably cynical and when he was walking and standing upright his girlfriend was crying with emotion, she couldn’t believe it.
“We have a girl from Cavan who comes down who was in a car crash six years ago and hasn’t walked since, it’s a huge mental lift for her.”
As research continues into cures for spinal cord injury, Nathan hopes that in the future there may be a cure for his condition, and that by keeping himself in optimal health he’s increasing his chances of being able to make a full recovery at some point in the future. He also hopes to be able to find employment:
“I will be looking at hopefully getting a job. I realise that if I want to work a job, Monday to Friday nine to five, that I need to be strong to get through a full day. This is all preparation for that.”
Nathan and Colin will be making an appearance at Cork City Marathon on the 1st of June, where Nathan will walk the last 600 metres to the finish line.
* Check out Facebook for Nathan’s appearances.
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