As Agnes Fejerdy got up and slowly walked around the room, students and staff from the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Monmouth County erupted in applause.
No wonder: The 35-year-old woman was left a paraplegic by a spinal cord injury suffered more than six years ago in a car accident.
But thanks to a startling Israeli invention strapped to her body like streamlined armor, Fejerdy is able to rise to a standing position and walk with the help of crutches.
“I have been completely paralyzed from the waist down,” the Hungarian native told NJJN after the program. The device “has changed my thinking. It has completely changed my life. It has changed everything,” said Fejerdy.
The Feb. 15 demonstration at the Marlboro school was arranged by Dr. Todd Cooperman, the father of three Schechter students and medical director at HealthSouth Rehab Hospital in Tinton Falls, where a demonstration was also held that afternoon.
Known as ReWalk, the computerized device had its breakout media moment in December when it was featured on the hit Fox TV show Glee.
Fejerdy is one of 12 participants in the only U.S. clinical trial, now being conducted at Moss Rehab, a division of Albert Einstein Healthcare Network in Philadelphia. She was accompanied on her Schechter visit by representatives of Argo Medical Technologies Inc. — the Israel-based manufacturer and marketer of the device — and its American partner, Allied Orthotics and Prosthetics of Mount Laurel.
ReWalk was approved in the fall for institutional use by the federal Food and Drug Administration, and it is expected to be available for wider application in the near future.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to use this technology on patients in my hospital,” said Cooperman, a Marlboro resident. “Before they went home I wanted the opportunity to share with the children what Israeli technology is doing to help people all over the world.”
Cooperman said the benefits to paraplegics from being upright and mobile were “countless” and included improvements to the cardiovascular and digestive system.
“The sky is the limit,” he told the youngsters.
Many of the fourth- to eighth-graders had already seen the ReWalk on Glee, where the wheelchair-bound “Artie” explains it “was made by some Israeli guy.”
Howard S. Brand, the certified prostheticist orthoticist of ReWalk Mid-Atlantic — formed by Allied to handle the U.S. launch — told the students the “Israeli guy” is Dr. Amit Goffer, who formed Argo.
An Israeli entrepreneur educated at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Goffer is himself a quadriplegic.
“He was injured while he was on vacation with his children,” said Brand. “He was thrown from [an] ATV and landed on his head. He is now in a wheelchair and he said to himself that he would design a machine that would let him walk again.”
Goffer formed Argo and was given incubator space at the Technion, where he developed ReWalk. Unfortunately, because upper body strength is required to maneuver the device, Brand said its inventor cannot himself use it.
Brand accompanied the device to the Glee set, and helped fit it to the actor (not paralyzed in real life) who plays Artie.
“We took it apart so there was no motor or computer because we didn’t want him to get hurt,” Brand said. “I was standing right next to Artie, and he did very well.” The motor sounds were later dubbed in.
Brand let the excited youngsters in on a trade secret.
“Don’t be surprised if you see the ReWalk again on Glee,” he told them. “They asked us to leave the ReWalk there so in subsequent episodes Artie will be seen walking.”
ReWalk’s ability to climb steps is “a godsend” for those previously confined to wheelchairs, said Brand.
Arielle Matuszewicz, a seventh-grader from Staten Island, said her own grandfather was paralyzed and in a wheelchair and she could only imagine how much having a ReWalk would have helped him.
Zachary Peller, a sixth-grader from Manalapan, said he thought the presentation was “amazing because Israel is so small yet it has the power to do this.”
“It’s going to help so many people,” he added.