Every step Dan Webb took on the stage at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School on Jan. 29 sounded like something out of a science fiction movie, with a constant whirring noise reminiscent of RoboCop. But for Webb, this was not fiction; it was the reality of having the ability to walk.
Webb, a paraplegic, was using ReWalk. Developed by Israeli inventor Dr. Amit Goffer, himself a quadriplegic, for ReWalk Robotics, the device is a wearable robotic exoskeleton. Strapped onto the legs and body, it moves a user’s hips and knees at the touch of a hand-held control through computer technology and sensors, as the wearer balances his upper body on crutches.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be walking again,” Webb, 44, told the students. Before he even spoke, the students gave him a standing ovation.
According to Webb, he is one of only eight people in the country who own a personal ReWalk system. “The first time I used it at home,” he said, “my dog was going nuts from the noise!” But, he added, the dog got used to it, and so did he.
ReWalk’s steep price — $69,500 for personal use — could have posed a major obstacle for Webb. But after he expressed an interest in meeting the inventor personally, AIPAC arranged for him to meet Goffer and speak briefly at its annual policy conference in 2013 in Washington, DC, in front of all 3,000 participants. “I was really nervous,” he recalled. But it was worth it. Attendees took up a collection that helped him meet the cost.
With the device, “I could take my kids to the school bus for the first time in five years,” he said of his two daughters, ages 12 and eight. “My daughter has a daddy-daughter dance coming up and it’s the first time I’ll be able to stand and do a mean robot dance — though I’m not sure my daughter will approve.”
Another benefit of ReWalk, he added, is that he “can talk to people face to face, instead of from a wheelchair.”
He acknowledged that the system “can be a little cumbersome getting from here to there,” explaining that it does take effort and time to walk a few steps. It also requires a second person serving as a spotter, walking behind the user, just in case a carpet is bunched up or a floor is slick. But it’s clear Webb is immensely grateful; he said he was “very fortunate” to get accepted into a trial.
Webb, who is from Warminster, Pa., was injured about five years ago, when he tumbled out of a tree on a hunting trip with a friend. “I fell on my back and I knew instantly I was paralyzed,” he said. “I was a very physical guy. I loved to play baseball and football. It was tough to sit back and watch everyone around me do everything I couldn’t do.”
When he heard that a rehabilitation center near his home had the ReWalk system, he took a chance and dropped in to see it. It turned out the patient originally chosen for the pilot project was unable to take part, and the center was looking for a new candidate. Webb’s positive outlook and can-do attitude, coupled with the nature of his injury — it was relatively recent, and his spinal cord was not completely severed, so that he has some sensation — made him a perfect match, he said.
For two years, Webb could use ReWalk only at the the rehab center before the system was approved for personal use by the FDA, a delay he called “frustrating.”
He’s also learned a lot about Israel since getting involved with ReWalk. He said, “I watch the news. I see the problems. I was impressed that this little country over in the Middle East came up with this technology and is now sharing it with us,” he said.
He concluded: “I’m very excited I’m part of something that might be the future.”
RKYHS is a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.