Four and a half years after she broke her neck in a car crash and lost movement in all of her limbs, Amy Paradis is standing again. “Oh, man, this is so weird!” says the 20-year-old, who, instead of gazing up at everyone, is looking each of us straight in the eye.
It’s June, the first day of a week-long training session at FootPrints, a spinal cord injury rehab centre in downtown Windsor, N.S. Paradis’s mother, Marlene Belliveau, opened the facility in 2012 in hopes of witnessing what happens next: her daughter walking. Secured to Paradis’s feet, legs and chest is a motorized exoskeleton. With therapy, Paradis has regained much of her arm function, but she has no mobility below the waist. The sensor-rich carbon-fibre frame is designed to remedy that. It registers her efforts to shift her weight before taking a step, and it delivers the power she needs to follow through. Close behind is Marki Wong, Paradis’s kinesiologist, and Jennifer Macievich, a physical therapist from Ekso Bionics, the California-based company that created the robotic suit.
The exoskeleton-or Ekso-exposes normal walking for what it is: a series of small, connected motions. Wearing two lithium-ion batteries like a backpack, Paradis marches forward using a walker to stay centred. Ball-screw motors at the hip and knee joints sigh with each stride, as though the machine is as pleased as Paradis.
Then, a problem. Paradis is overshifting the walker, steering her upper body left while her feet angle right. Wong presses a button on the unit’s receiver, and Paradis finds herself frozen mid-stride, neither foot flush with the floor. She looks searchingly over her shoulder. “I got ya,” says Macievich, who nudges Paradis’s feet evenly beneath her. With Paradis squared up, the three women complete two lengths of the room. But Paradis continues to have trouble: the walker shoots ahead, and her right foot snags on the carpet. Macievich squares her again. “I feel really off,” Paradis says. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
Time for a break. The trio heads to a wooden bench. After Macievich unfastens the leg and chest straps, Paradis transfers herself from the bench to her wheelchair. Her arms are a fresco of tattoos, including a white-feathered dream catcher that covers her entire right shoulder. On her wrist is written, This too shall pass. Then she puts a hand to each eye to stem the tears.
Five passengers were in the station wagon speeding down Chester Road on December 26, 2009, when Paradis’s 19-year-old friend Ian Stephens pushed the speedometer past 130 kilometres an hour. Paradis says that while everyone was “laughing and carrying on,” she wasn’t alone feeling scared. She was, however, the only one who undid her seat belt: she wanted off the joyride and was preparing to jump. Stephens came up on a bend too fast. The car hit the shoulder and rolled to the bottom of a snowy ditch.
“She’s breathing on her own,” Belliveau was told by one of the trauma physicians at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax. “For now.” The only person injured in the crash, Paradis was placed in a traction halo. X-rays showed four fractured vertebrae; she had surgery the next evening. The teen didn’t wait long to display her fighting spirit. Video taken 10 days after the accident shows Paradis using a suction tube to lip-synch to Ja Rule’s “Livin’ It Up.” When her respirator pops out, she continues to groove, arms bobbing above the hospital linen.
Both mother and daughter resented the textbook assessments they were given by hospital staff. One of the initial attending physicians told Belliveau, “I don’t see her making much of a functional recovery.” And several clinicians suggested any therapy was likely to plateau about 18 months after the event. “She was told, ‘Here’s your chair, you’ll be here the rest of your life,'” Belliveau says.
Rehab was not Belliveau’s field of expertise-she has a background in social work-but she canvassed researchers in Canada and the United States, and learned everything she could about improving impaired movement after a spinal cord injury. It became clear that, to see real progress, her daughter needed a dedicated space with specialized workout gear. Using her savings, she built one.
The idea paid off. Belliveau brought in a home therapist to work with Paradis from 2011 to 2012, but her core strength gains have accelerated in the past year and a half under Wong’s guidance at FootPrints. Paradis submits to a two-hour three-day-a-week regimen of pelvic tilts, back extensions and standing ball throws. Now and then a wow moment happens. “I’ll feel a muscle clench or move, a muscle I didn’t have yet,” she says, preferring not to think of her legs as frozen, but asleep. Subtle improvements have led to more significant ones. Paradis can sit up in bed, she can do a kicking motion, and she has sensation all the way to her toes.