Five years after a diving accident left her paralyzed from the neck down, Michaela Devins did something she thought was forever lost to her.
“It was amazing to be able to walk with my dad down the aisle,” says Michaela, recalling her wedding day. “After my accident I never thought I would be able to do that. It’s hard to put into words what that means. And then to be able to stand across from my husband as we said our vows and look at him eye level was indescribable. I am forever thankful to Good Shepherd for making that happen.”
It was a combination of technology, inspiration and determination that made that precious moment possible. Every week for one year, the now 27-year-old had been making the six-hour trip from her home in Plattsburgh, New York, to Good Shepherd in Allentown for an hour of physical therapy in the EksoGT (TM) exoskeleton. The EksoGT is a wearable bionic suit which enables individuals with lower extremity paralysis or weakness to stand and walk. Battery-powered motors drive the legs and replace neuro-muscular function.
Getting to Good Shepherd though was more than a journey of miles, it was a journey of hope. Michaela, who became a quadriplegic after the accident, didn’t think she’d qualify to use the Ekso until a therapist in Syracuse, New York told her about another quadriplegic patient who was traveling to Good Shepherd for Ekso therapy sessions.
Skeptical, Michaela called Good Shepherd and was thrilled to learn that indeed, there were other quadriplegics using the Ekso. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” says Michaela.
In October 2014, Michaela came to Good Shepherd for a consultation. “They determined I was a candidate and they got me up in the Ekso that day,” says Michaela. “From the moment I stood up in it and before I took a step, there were parts of my brain that were lighting up that hadn’t lit up since the accident. I looked at my mom. I was a little teary. I got to walk around a little bit. When I left I said, ‘We have to come back.’”
Over the next year, family members pitched in and drove Michaela to Allentown for her Ekso sessions. During that time, Michaela was planning her January 1, 2016, wedding to Kyle Devins. When Frank Hyland, executive director and administrator of the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital found out, he and Michaela’s therapists made it their mission to bring the Ekso to Michaela’s wedding so she could take that walk down the aisle like any other bride.
“We had all kinds of sessions trying to figure out how I was going to wear it with my dress,” says Michaela. “There was a lot of brainstorming.”
With each Ekso session, Michaela has been uplifted in body and soul. “It’s been a huge part of my life since coming to Good Shepherd,” says Michaela. “I look forward to the weekly opportunity to stand up and walk around for an hour. There’s proven benefits for the way it not only helps with your physical health, but emotionally and psychologically too.”
Since she’s been working with the Ekso Michaela says she has gained strength in her upper torso and improved her balance. The weight-bearing exercise Michaela gets with the Ekso has helped build muscle mass in her legs, improve bone density, and reduce the risk of potentially life-threatening clots that can develop from prolonged sitting in a wheelchair.
The Ekso has benefited Michaela in another way too which she hopes will let her reconnect with a lifelong passion.
“I was part of a gospel choir and singing has always been such a big part of my life, and it’s always going to be a part of me,” says Michaela. “Knowing that my capacity for singing has increased because of the Ekso gives me more confidence to get back into it.”
Michaela’s joy though was dampened when she learned in June 2017 insurance would no longer pay for her Ekso therapy. Because the Food and Drug Administration requires a licensed physical therapist work one-on-one with each patient using the Ekso, the cost per hour per patient is $130. Good Shepherd’s commitment to providing charitable care provides for $30 to $50 per patient per therapy visit, however that leaves a deficit for patients to cover.
“We don’t have a lot of money,” says Michaela “We live comfortably but there are limits. To pay out of pocket gets difficult.”
When Michaela learned about the donor-supported Ekso Wellness Fund available to patients unable to pay for Ekso sessions themselves, and that the cost to her would be only $20 per therapy session, Michaela’s hopes to continue therapy with the Ekso soared. “I thought, thank goodness, I can do this,”she says.
Michaela and Kyle now live in Philadelphia where Michaela is working on a master’s degree in counseling and mental health services at the University of Pennsylvania. Kyle, who has his medical degree, is doing a pathology residency also at the University of Pennsylvania. The move to Philadelphia has made it much easier for Michaela to get to Good Shepherd and with help from the Ekso Wellness Fund Michaela is literally continuing to make strides with the Ekso.
“The money that donors put forth impacts real people and real lives,” says Michaela. “It does make a difference, and it’s my hope that they know what having access to this amazing resource means. Every person I know that has used the Ekso Wellness Fund is so incredibly thankful for it because it gives them access to the Ekso where we wouldn’t otherwise have it.”