Paraplegic walks tall with bionic backpack

Radi Kaiuf was confined to a wheelchair for 20 years after being shot in the spine while fighting for the Israeli army in Lebanon in 1988.

But a chance meeting with Israel computer scientist Amit Goffer at a rehabilitation centre in Tel Aviv changed all that.

Dr Goffer, who became a quadriplegic in a car accident in 1997, asked Mr Kaiuf if he'd like to try something new - a bionic walking machine that he had developed.

First Mr Kaiuf learnt to stand using the device, prompting his young daughter to remark, "Daddy, you're so tall". Then he learnt to walk. Today he is employed by its maker Argo Medical Technologies to tour the world and showcase the device.

This week Mr Kaiuf has been in Melbourne to demonstrate the "ReWalk" device for potential investors, as the company seeks a partner to distribute it in Australia.

Already ReWalk has been tested by hundreds of patients, mostly through rehabilitation facilities in the US and Europe. A small number of patients are now using it in everyday life, including in Israel and Britain, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to approve it for personal use at home in the US. It costs about $85,000.

Mr Kauif said ReWalk had made him "feel normal", allowing him to easily navigate a shopping mall and chase after his children in the park.

The device has an external frame that is attached to Mr Kaiuf's legs, and motors that power movement at the hips and knees. They are connected to a computer worn in a backpack, which Mr Kaiuf programs through a remote control on his wrist.

Mr Kaiuf programs commands that allow him to stand up, and the walking motion is triggered by a "tilt sensor" when he leans forward. He also uses crutches to stay balanced.

Mr Kaiuf had about 20, one-hour sessions to learn how to use the ReWalk, which has benefits beyond the practical and psychological boost of being able to stand up and walk.

There is some evidence it also helps improve some of the complications of spinal cord injury, which can include bowel and bladder dysfunction and muscle wastage.

Dr Peter New, head of rehabilitation at Monash Health and head of Caulfield Hospital's spinal rehabilitation unit, said devices like the ReWalk were an exciting development for patients with spinal injuries.

"Like many other things in medicine, this builds on other technologies and other things that have gone before but they have certainly taken it to a new level," he said.

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