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Health Team

Device helps young woman 'walk' again

Posted February 19

As medical technology evolves, amazing solutions are helping people who have lost the use of their legs to navigate their world. Some examples are high-tech wheel chairs that help the user climb stairs and a special device, called Ekso, that is helping a young North Carolina woman get on her feet again.

McKayla Creef, 19, was a passenger in a friend's car when they hit a tractor.

"I had my feet on the dashboard, which I shouldn't have, and I didn't have my seat belt on," Creef said.

In that July 2014 accident, Creef suffered multiple injuries, including a stroke to her spine.

After two weeks in a coma and a four-month hospital stay, Creef still faced a life in which she was told she would never walk again, play softball or ride her horse.

She is experimenting with the Ekso, an adjustable, portable, battery-powered, bionic exoskeleton.

"I'm riding that horse. I'm going to," a confident Creef says.

For now, she does rehab at WakeMed in Raleigh, the only rehab center in the state approved to use Ekso as a therapeutic tool in patients with lower-body weakness or paralysis.

The first phase of therapy relies on remote control to advance with a step. Later, a special crutch allows the patient to control the steps.

"Then we went into Pro-Step, where when she would weight shift, the machine would automatically take a step," physical therapist Cheryl Bennett described.

"It feels great," Creef says of the ability to stand and move about.

There are other benefits, Bennett said.

"It allows them to be upright, which is better for all your organs to function. We've had people report that they don't have back pain," she said. It also offers improved circulation, breathing and increased bone strength.

Creef's parents didn't know what to expect when therapists first strapped their daughter into the device.

"It was even overwhelming for us," her mother, Anna Creef, said. "We weren't quite ready or prepared emotionally, because seeing her stand up and walk was really exciting."

The most exciting part for McKayla Creef is the promise of more independence.

"I hope to one day be able to walk around the house, to stand up, do dishes, something," she said.

She intends to keep the vow she made early in her recovery.

"To the doctors who told me that I would never walk or ride or pitch again, they'll see. They need to believe. I believe. I believe I'll walk again," Creef said.

The Ekso model used at WakeMed costs about $160,000. But the Ekso company is planning a take-home version down the road with a target price of around $60,000. It would be tailored to the size of the patient and would always require a "spotter" to be with the user.

Such a device could help fulfill McKayla Creef's strong belief that she will walk again, if only through the Ekso device. She's now a student majoring in psychology at North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount, and she says she'd love to take a stroll around campus with it.

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