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Paralyzed veterans could walk again using robotic legs paid for by the VA

Retired Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Drivere doesn't expect to run around the park with his children. It would be enough to walk to the sink for water.

But his dream may come true now that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has agreed to pay for robotic legs for qualified patients.

The ReWalk exoskeleton device, invented by an Israeli quadriplegic, could be offered to San Diego veterans as early as this spring, officials said.

It would give veterans paralyzed from the chest down the ability to stand, walk upright and — important in an immeasurable way — greet people eye-to-eye.

It couldn't come soon enough for Drivere, 37, a former Camp Pendleton Marine injured in a motorcycle crash in July 2014. His name is on a waiting list that began forming six months ago at the San Diego VA hospital, one of 25 spinal cord care units in the VA network.

"The longer I wait, the longer I don't put my body weight on my extremities," said Drivere, who first saw the exoskeleton early last year at an expo. "My bone density gets weaker, my circulation is slower."

At least 42,000 American military veterans suffer from a spinal cord injury or disease. Just a fraction of those — maybe a few hundred, said an official with the Paralyzed Veterans of America — will initially meet the criteria to be good candidates for the device.

San Diego County is already home to one.

Marine Capt. Derek Herrera was paralyzed by a sniper's bullet in Afghanistan in 2012. But at his November 2014 Bronze Star ceremony at Camp Pendleton, the special operations team leader walked forward to accept his award.

Herrera, now medically retired at age 31, was an early user of the ReWalk exoskeleton.

"The biggest thing that's a game-changer for me, it made me hopeful for the future. It changed my mind-set," said Herrera, who has launched his own company, Spinal Singularity, to develop medical devices for paraplegics.

The device hasn't replaced his wheelchair. Herrera uses his ReWalk for only a few hours a week to put his weight on his legs, which helps keep his bones healthy and assists digestion and other functions.

"Emotionally, though, it's important. I went from being a 6-foot-2 special operations officer in the Marine Corps, having a very physical identity, to being in a wheelchair where people don't even think of me as a physical being," Herrera said.

"Being able to walk around, talk to people, look people in the eye, it's pretty awesome. It's pretty powerful."

Donations paid the $70,000 tab for his ReWalk back in 2013. The Marsoc Foundation, a charity focused on the Marine special operations troops, led a fundraising campaign in Coronado.

The going price for a ReWalk device is $77,000 — well beyond the means of the average disabled veteran, without assistance from the VA.

ReWalk's chief executive says the VA will make its money back over two to three years per patient through reduced costs for medicine and hospital visits. Paralyzed veterans commonly require pain medication and treatment for pressure sores caused by sitting in wheelchairs day after day.

CEO Larry Jasinski said his company, based in Israel and Massachusetts, has distributed 200 of the exoskeleton devices worldwide, including 36 in the United States since the Food and Drug Administration approved the equipment for personal use in mid-2014.

The VA's decision opens the door to more users, and ReWalk hopes the devices will eventually help stroke victims and people with multiple sclerosis and other disorders.

"Eventually you might see this on thousands of people," Jasinski said.

It won't help everyone in a wheelchair.

Sherman Gillums, deputy executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, said the best candidates are only five years into paralysis.

In terms of those injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, that's perhaps 200 to 400 veterans, said Gillums, who was a Camp Pendleton Marine when he was paralyzed during training in 2002.

Good candidates are also between 5 feet 2 and 6 feet 2 and weigh less than 220 pounds. Good upper-body strength and movement are also required, among other criteria.

jen.steele@sduniontribune.com

Steele writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 04, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "For paralyzed veterans, a chance to walk again - An agreement by the VA could enable some qualified patients to get robotic legs." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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