Retired Army Veteran Eugene Simpson Jr., 40 of Woodbridge, Virginia, strolls with his wife, Aerial, through the back halls of Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center for a routine medical appointment. They casually laugh and joke. He suddenly pulls her close. His 6-foot, 3-inch frame towers over her as they pause and smile for a picture captured by a medical media photographer.
What makes this day remarkable is the fact that Simpson hasn’t had the ability to stand or walk for the past 13 years. But he does now because VA is leading research in the advancement of robotics to improve the health and care of Veterans.
Not long ago Simpson was accepted as a volunteer in one of the VA‘s multicenter Cooperative Study Programs based on new powered exoskeleton technology that allows eligible paraplegics a chance at a better quality of life.
“The program is based upon pilot research by Dr. Ann Spungen of the Bronx VA Medical Center’s Center of Excellence on Medical Consequences of Spinal Cord Injury,” said Dr. Lance Goetz, site investigator for the Richmond McGuire study. “Exoskeletons allow upright ambulation in the household and community for persons with SCI who otherwise lack functional ambulation.” Fortunately for Simpson (or maybe not), he fits that description.
In 2004, Simpson, then 26, was an Army tank commander embedded with 1st Battalion, 77th Armor, based in Schweinfurt, Germany. They were deployed to Iraq to help train the Iraqi Army and conduct 4-5 hour patrol missions
One day his patrol unit was struck by the force of an improvised explosive device as drove by it. He was ejected from the vehicle and the shrapnel got the best of him.
“During the explosion is really like The Matrix,” explained Simpson. “If you watch TV and you see explosions happening and everything is in slow motion – that’s exactly how it happens. Everything is slow motion, you don’t hear anything, and after about a few seconds everything snaps back to normal and its fast paced.”
“I was hit everywhere with it. I knew I was injured and couldn’t move too much, but we were able to get back to the base camp”, said Simpson.
The explosion sidelined Simpson from the war on terror. He was flown back to a hospital in Germany for multiple surgeries, and was comforted to find his parents by his side when he awoke. However, that comfort was short-lived as the doctor detailed his diagnosis. Simpson, an athletic soldier, was paralyzed from the waist down with a severed spine. He would never again use his legs for anything.
Simpson, however, embraced his new reality, which included one that’s all too common for many disabled Veterans who have returned home weary from war. The father of two boys was divorced within the year and after a stint at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, was left alone to reinvent himself with some help from VA.
“All of my surgeries were complete, so when I got to McGuire I was able to start the physical part of my rehab recovery in a wheelchair,” said Simpson. “Reality hit me immediately because everyone was on me as far as all of your therapists, your strengthening people and your wheelchair people. Everybody is so quick to want to get you prepared for your new life.”
Simpson says his time at McGuire wasn’t too hard because he was able to relate with many of the patients, who were mostly Veterans with new disabilities as well. The medical professionals were of great service, and the hospital was designed with wheelchair ramps and other accessories for people like him. However, Simpson found life at home would prove to be more challenging.
“Once you get home, someone has to make things accessible for you, or you have to find your way around it,” he recalls. “And that was a little difficult.”
Simpson eventually adapted to a more normal-as-can-be life and even married Aerial in 2013.
“I don’t even see the wheelchair,” says Aerial. He is a very strong person, and I built my relationship with him because of the man he is. I love him whether he’s sitting or standing.”
Simpson says he has maintained a positive outlook on life mostly due to the unwavering support of his family to include his two sons, who are growing to be leaders in their own right.
But as many Veterans in Simpson’s condition may do, he sometimes wonders how his life could be better. His optimism has improved now that he a part of the research trial at McGuire, which could allow him the opportunity to take one of the ReWalk exoskeletons home.
“I was here at McGuire during one of my annual checkups and I saw a guy on one of the exoskeletons,” said Simpson. “It looked awesome! And my head was rushing and I was thinking how amazing it would be to stand up and walk around a little bit again.”
Simpsons coordinated with his physician, and engaged in a series of bone density tests, x-rays, skin tests and strength tests to be sure the 77-pound exoskeleton is not too overbearing on his compromised structure and time-deteriorated leg muscle. He says he was already in shape, so preparation for the study was not a big deal.
“When you’re in a wheelchair and you’re active, your upper body stays pretty strong because you’re pushing all the time,” Simpson said. “Everybody else is walking, but you’re pushing.”
According to Rewalk.com, “Rewalk is a wearable robotic exoskeleton that provides powered hip and knee motion” for “independent, controlled walking while mimicking the natural gait of the legs.” It allows SCI victims to “stand upright, walk, turn, and climb and descend stairs.”
Dr. Goetz and his associates not only believe the FDA approved exoskeleton, called the ReWalk 6.0, allows one to improve mental, social and physical health by standing and walking, or even reaching for a snack in a high kitchen cabinet, but also to overcome bowel and bladder management difficulties.
“Everybody looks tall in a wheelchair, but when I actually got to stand up and look around and over people and down on them instead of everybody looking down on me, it was amazing,” said Simpson.
“The importance of the study [to me] is just that it’s giving guys that are paralyzed just the opportunity to feel normal and do the things they couldn’t do because of the wheelchair. People don’t realize that, just one or two steps, it changes guy’s lives. Mentally it can do amazing things.”
Watch Simpson walk with the exoskeleton here:
Anderson J. Grant is a visual information specialist at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia.