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Ekso Helps High School Senior Walk for First Time in Seven Years to Receive Diploma

July 19, 2017

Like most high school seniors, 19-year-old Derek DiGregorio approached his graduation at Princeton High School with a mix of nostalgia and excitement. But the ceremony held even more significance to Derek. In a wheelchair due to a progressive neurodegenerative condition called ataxia telangiectasia since he was 12, Derek set a goal to walk across the stage to receive his diploma.

To help make that goal a reality, Derek and his parents traveled from their home in Princeton to Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network in Allentown, Pennsylvania, once every week for five months. There, he worked with Good Shepherd therapist Alyssa Hauck, PT, DPT, to learn to use a specialized piece of rehabilitation technology called the Ekso Bionics exoskeleton. With the aid of the Ekso and under Alyssa’s watchful eye, Derek surprised the audience and his 300 fellow classmates by walking to receive his diploma.

The Ekso is a wearable bionic suit that allows individuals with lower extremity weakness to stand up and walk with a natural gait. Walking is achieved by the user’s weight shifting and activating sensors in the device, which initiate steps. Battery-powered motors drive the legs in the suit, which is often used to help spinal cord injury and stroke patients regain some level of lost function.

“I am so proud of Derek and all the hard work that he has dedicated to prepare for his graduation,” said Hauck. “He is truly an inspiration to me and the rest of the staff at Good Shepherd. He is a real life super hero.”

She says he has made huge progress in a short period of time, and is walking and using muscles he has not used in years. With its back mounted control unit, Derek says he feels like an astronaut with a jet pack wearing the Ekso.

The middle of three boys, Derek’s parents, Nadia and Steve, initially became concerned when Derek struggled with balance when learning to walk. Over the next 11 years, they would bring Derek to a variety of specialists for testing, hopeful for a diagnosis. The answer came from the eighth pediatric neurologist they saw.

An extremely rare neurodegenerative disease, ataxia telangiectasia affects only 400 to 500 children in the United States. The condition causes blood vessels to bundle and/or breakdown, resulting in severe disability, severe internal bleeding, and, in some cases, death. 

Despite the sobering and stunning diagnosis, the DiGregorio’s philosophy is that Derek is the same kid as he has always been and that life goes on. They work hard to ensure Derek has a busy, full schedule like any other teenager. A huge super hero fan, he has stayed in school, earned a third degree black belt in tae kwon do, serves as the school photographer, and his entire family has been active in fundraising to raise money for his disease. Derek sees twelve specialists to keep his symptoms under control as much as possible.

Nadia said she was thrilled that Derek was able to accomplish a goal that was so important to him.

“We are so grateful that everything turned out the way Derek wanted it to,” she said.