YOKNE’AM ILIT, Israel
Radi Kaiuf was serving in Lebanon in 1988 with the Israel Defense Forces' Golani Brigade when, in the middle of an operation, he took two bullets to the stomach and one to the back.
He was lucky to be alive, doctors said, but he would never walk again.
Now, Kaiuf meets co-workers at eye level, standing with them in the hallway of his workplace, Argo Medical Technologies. It’s on the sixth floor of an office building, and if he wanted to he could take the stairs.
Four oblong black plastic cases are strapped to Kaiuf's legs and waist and connected to a thin black backpack. In his hands he's holding what look like ski poles. Before walking away, Kaiuf presses a small button atop one of the poles, leans forward ever so slightly, and with the sound of a whirring machine, his legs begin to move.
In one sense at least, the doctors were right: Without this device, Kaiuf would be confined to a wheelchair. But he is one of six people who, almost daily, use the ReWalk, a 44-pound exoskeleton that allows individuals with spinal cord injuries to walk, stand and sit with minimal exertion.
“At the beginning I didn’t believe I could walk,” said Kaiuf, who now works full time at Argo testing the device. “All you know is the wheelchair. It was really incredible. It’s fun to walk. It returns me to normal, like everyone else.”
The ReWalk, which was developed by Argo and released in September, is the brainchild of Amit Goffer, an Israeli computer scientist and inventor who became paralyzed after a 1997 car accident. Although he cannot use the ReWalk himself because he lacks the use of his arms, he began designing the device with the help of a $50,000 grant from the Israeli government because he was frustrated at the lack of alternatives to a wheelchair.
“It’s natural to me that if there’s a problem, physics has a solution,” said Goffer, 59, who is now Argo’s chief technological officer. He hopes to one day help develop a similar device for quadriplegics, though for now he is focused on launching the ReWalk.
The device functions through motors attached to the legs that can propel a disabled person at a slow walking speed. A tilt sensor, the same technology used on Segway electric transporters, can sense whether the user wants to move forward or back, stand or sit. Poles are used for added support. Training for the ReWalk takes about 12 hours over the course of a few weeks.
Larry Jasinski, Argo's CEO, says the most difficult part of the training is getting used to walking and balancing again with only the upper body.
“Individuals who got injured, they changed the environment around them to live with ramps and function on wheels,” said Jasinski. “We give them functionality in a regular environment. There’s an emotional component of this product.”
Though not yet cleared for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Jasinski estimates that 250,000 people in the United States and Europe could use the ReWalk. The device is already available in Europe, where 32-year-old Claire Lomas completed the London Marathon with the help of a ReWalk in May. Lomas walked about two miles of the 26.2-mile course each day, completing it in a little over two weeks.
That kind of performance doesn't come cheap: the device costs $65,000 and current models are not expected to last more than five years. Jasinski counters that high-end electric wheelchairs are not much cheaper and added that Argo is working to conduct studies touting the ReWalk’s health and work benefits in an effort to persuade insurance companies to cover part of the cost.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has already agreed to help buy for ReWalks for injured veterans, and Jasinski is also hoping for assistance from Israel’s Defense Ministry. He noted that using the ReWalk burns fat and builds some muscle.
“A healthier person can work better,” said Jasinski. “It’s easier to work when you can stand up and talk to people. If it becomes clear that the medical benefit outweighs the cost, you will get groups to pay for it.”
For many currently confined to wheelchairs, however, the promise of walking again is priceless.
“For them, if you have something that can make you stand, you go to the end of the world to get it,” Kaiuf said. "In their dreams, they’re still walking. Their dream is to walk.”
His happiest moment with the ReWalk came when his daughter saw him with it for the first time. “She said, ‘Abba, you’re tall!’” he recalled. “That made me feel good.”