With this exoskeleton, the disabled stand up and walk

Cinephiles remember it. Sigourney Weaver who walks like a robot in “Alien” to fight the creature. Pure science fiction born from the imagination of James Cameron in 1986.

Over thirty years later, reality has caught up with fiction. It is no longer a question of cinema, but of health. And it is the patients in rehabilitation at the Albert-Chenevier hospital (AP-HP), in Créteil, who can resume walking thanks to a self-balancing exoskeleton.

It is the first public hospital in France to acquire this revolutionary tool, unique in the world, developed by the French company Wandercraft. Cutting-edge technology inspired by humanoid robots.

VIDEO. Discover in pictures our report at Albert-Chenevier hospital

This Tuesday, Atalante, that’s her name, is waiting for Pierre, 64, for a session. No sooner had he tasted the joys of retirement than this former laboratory technician found himself stuck in a wheelchair. A spinal cord hemorrhage has deprived him of his legs since February.

“I know that I am held, I am not afraid”

In the rehabilitation room, surrounded by walkers and the usual standing tables, the ritual begins. Pierre leaves his chair to get into the walking robot. He must first harness himself. A vest to put on, straps to tighten to tie his feet, his legs. There he is ready. The physiotherapists consult the mini-computer, which will configure the settings corresponding to the patient.

A forward movement of the head impulses the sensor. At the second beep, Pierre finds himself standing. “He can hold it on his own, without a cane,” enthuses Estelle, physiotherapist, trained in the use of Atalante. A few warm-up exercises later – bending down, bending the knees – and the paraplegic patient takes his first steps. “With that, it’s get up and walk,” he laughs, savoring the delicious sensation of “feeling his leg”, even as he walks towards the physiotherapist.

Dazzling progress

Behind him, another professional, an EAPA (teacher of adapted physical activities), watches over his safety and the rail by which the patient is held. “Look straight ahead,” advises the physiotherapist. Pierre tends to watch his feet. “It’s to train the exoskeleton, to participate,” he smiles. But poor positioning risks upsetting the balance. A shoulder to the left and presto, the U-turn is done on that side. “I know that I am held, I am not afraid”, confides the patient, at the end of his sixth session.

Créteil, November 17, 2020. Pierre, 64, exercises with the exoskeleton, which is connected by a rail to the ceiling. LP / Philippe de Poulpiquet

Its progress is dazzling. “After the first session, he had already doubled the distance he does with the walker,” emphasizes the physiotherapist. Because thanks to the exoskeleton, it works the upper body, stands straighter and therefore can move forward better. The paraplegic works one session a week, and hopes he can do more. But you have to mobilize two physiotherapists each time, a rare commodity at the moment.

Technology at 175,000 euros

Only a handful of patients can currently benefit from such rehabilitation. “We received it at the beginning of October, the staff had to be trained. The Covid has delayed everything, ”specifies Pascale Jacob, a health executive who coordinates the technical platform for functional rehabilitation.

But without the Covid and the outpouring of generosity generated around caregivers, Chenevier, who took care of 150 post-resuscitation patients between March and June, would have had to wait a while before equipping himself with the precious exoskeleton, sold for 175,000 euros.

Professor Jean-Michel Graciès, head of the neurolocomotor rehabilitation service, had heard about the Wandercraft discovery two years ago: “I wanted to convince the AP-HP to buy one”. But thanks to the donation of “Protegetonsoignant.com”, Atalante made its entry into the Calmette pavilion on October 6. It was one of his former students from the time he worked in New York, converted into the world of start-ups, who founded this platform during the epidemic to raise funds. Seven million were raised to provide equipment to hospitals, including Atalante in Chenevier.

Daily use in a few years?

“It is a technology much superior to other existing exoskeletons developed by the Japanese or the Americans,” says Jean-Michel Graciès. Wandercraft is still working on reducing the weight, making it smoother and there are regular updates. The next one will allow you to climb the stairs, walk sideways, etc.

For his patients, the benefits are immense. Both to get patients who have been immobilized for too long and whose physical condition is deteriorating, to relearn walking to those who no longer know how to walk, such as after a stroke, or even perhaps to restore brain functions in Parkinson’s patients who are at a very advanced stage of the disease.

Out of the 125 beds in his department, the professional evaluates the possible beneficiaries of this technology to around twenty patients, which he also hopes will help “promote the public hospital”.

But tomorrow, all disabled people stuck in a wheelchair could take advantage of it for everyday use. At least it is the ambition of Wandercraft which works to lower the cost of its technology. Professor Graciès applauds: “Life is spent standing. “

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