In another era, Cory Cook almost definitely would have spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
Since a diving accident in 2012 damaged the New Hampshire man’s spinal cord, he has been paralyzed from the chest down.
After nine months of training at an area hospital, though, Cook this week was looking forward to gardening at his Keene, New Hampshire home and taking strolls with his wife Colline, standing upright with the help of his very own battery-powered robotic exoskeleton.
Cook was the first patient in the nation for whom a private insurance company, Blue Cross Blue Shield, covered the cost of the device - a piece of machinery, straight out of science fiction, which hospital leadership said could revolutionize treatment for paraplegics.
“The health benefits of being vertical are amazing,” Cook said Thursday during a demonstration at the Spaulding Rehab Hospital in Charlestown. “That’s the way your body was designed was to be in the upright position. It’s good to be back to that point, which is really what drives me to continue trying any new therapies or innovations that arise.”
The exoskeleton, produced by an Israeli company called ReWalk, guides users’ legs in a walking motion using a system of sensors, metal supports and a backpack battery with enough juice to power a four-hour walk.
Using it is complicated, Cook said. He has to shift his weight forward and to the side in just the right way to engage the robotic joints, which bend and step with a soft, whirring whoosh. The first time he strapped in, he said, he moved just 10 feet in two hours.
A team of trainers at Spaulding had been working with him once or twice a week to help him build his skills, he said. He balances on two crutches, and walks with a partner for support – at the demo, his wife Colline filled that role.
“It’s nice just to stand next to him,” she said.
They may be scientific marvels – and similar machines have started popping up in military and manufacturing roles - but ReWalk’s exoskeletons are expensive. At roughly $70,000, they cost about as much as a Tesla.
And as for support from insurance companies, Cook is in rare company. Since the FDA approved ReWalk’s product last year, only a few patients in the country have been able to take their systems home, using providers like the Veterans Affairs plan or with help from donors, according to a hospital spokesperson.
Support for the systems is growing, ReWalk CEO Larry Jazinski told Metro.
A team of ReWalk employees have worked to convince insurance carriers that the health benefits are worth the price, Jazinski said. Exoskeletons could reduce the amount of pain medication a patient has to take, for example, or help patients avoid the hazards of staying seated all day, he said.
“We need to objectively, scientifically continue to demonstrate it,” Jazinski said. “The intent behind this is to become a part of everyday life.”
Spaulding leaders said they were excited about the possibilities, waiting to see how the machine evolves.
“We’re at a disruptive time in the care of our patients,” Zafonte told Metro. “And I think that’s a good disruption.”