TAMPA, Fla. - Told they might never walk again, Tampa Bay veterans now have renewed hope thanks to a robot that takes the place of their own skeleton.
One of those veterans is John Vail, who deployed to Kuwait in October 2011. He made it about 6 months before the tank he was riding in flipped over, ejected him, and then rolled on top of him.
"When you can't feel, you have no idea what's going on," he remembered. "For all I knew, it was a bloody mess."
Vail soon learned the weight of the tank pinched his spinal cord enough to paralyze him from the waist down. Immediately, he had one question.
"Am I going to walk again? You want to ask that so bad," he said.
He never did, because he didn't want to hear the answer Dr. Kevin White typically has to give.
"In the past, I could never say yes or no for sure," Dr. White explained.
Chief of Spinal Cord Injuries at James A. Haley Hospital, Dr. White would've said the same thing to Vail, until he saw him in the "exoskeleton".
It's a robotic brace programmed with the patient's unique body dimensions, walking speed, and gait length.
"Besides it being a work-out, it feels great. I'm standing up, I'm moving, I'm walking," Vail said. "Walking is taken for granted by so many people. Once it's taken away, it's amazing whenever you get it back."
The exoskeleton also helps with bone density, digestive function, cardiovascular health, and most of all, hope.
"They're actually going to be upright, standing, their whole family can see them in a position they haven't seen them in since their injury," Dr. White said.
Because the technology is so new, doctors are still learning about all its benefits, including whether it may eventually help cure paralysis. Short-term, they hope their patients will someday take it out of the hospital and home to use everyday.
"It's life-changing for me to see it. It's life-changing for veterans or active duty soldiers," Dr. White said.
Vail says he doesn't even feel like he's wearing a brace, and the only other time that happens is when he dreams.
"When I dream, I'm walking," Vail said. "I'm never going to give up, especially now."
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As the afternoon sea breezes kick in, we will see mainly inland showers and storms developing. They will dry up shortly after sunset.