London Community News
Mitch Brogan was paralyzed after getting hit by a drunk driver nearly six years ago
By Paul Everest/London Community News/Twitter: @PaulEverest1
Last week, Mitch Brogan attended a friend’s wedding in St. Louis.
While other attendees, without a second thought, rose to their feet any time the emcee asked, Brogan was hoping it would be the last wedding he’d ever attend where he couldn’t stand with his friends and family.
“It’d be nice to have a real dance, to stand up when everybody else does, to sit when they do, to look eye-to-eye when they’re talking to you.”
A pair of bionic legs coming from the other side of the world this week will make that hope a reality for Brogan.
The 31-year-old hasn’t walked since the early morning hours of Sept. 16, 2006.
A resident of Ottawa at the time, Brogan was just passing through London with his brother and promoting his belief in biofuels at a local forum.
He had been playing chess late into the night with a friend and had decided to ride his bike to Tim Hortons for a coffee.
At 2:45 a.m., near the intersection of Dundas Street and Oakland Avenue, a drunk driver travelling at 72 kilometres per hour struck Brogan from behind.
His back ended up going through the vehicle’s windshield and his head struck the car so hard it left a five-centimetre dent in the roof.
He credits the helmet he was wearing for saving his life.
“The helmet was found 200 feet away if that gives you any bearing on the impact.”
The first person to come to his side was the woman driving the vehicle, to whom he uttered one sentence before falling unconscious.
“I said, ‘I forgive you’.”
When he emerged from a coma three days later, he was unaware of his condition and couldn’t talk.
It was while a nurse was caring for him that his powers of speech returned and he asked her why he wasn’t brushing his own teeth.
“She held my hands, looked me in the eyes and told me everything that was going on,” Brogan said. “We both cried together.”
He learned he had a spinal cord injury and doctors told him he had a one per cent chance of ever using his arms or legs again.
“I had no belief I would ever walk again.”
Despite this crushing news, Brogan remained positive.
“There’s always parts of you that thinks you can beat the odds.”
Within seven months of the crash, he was able to get his arms moving again and on his birthday in 2007, Brogan’s friends sent him a link to a website for an Israeli company that develops exoskeleton legs for people with mobility challenges.
He began researching “bionic legs” technologies over the next few years and came across a New Zealand company called Rex Bionics.
The company’s exoskeleton legs best suited Brogan’s needs, specifically a lack of strength in his arms, and he contacted the firm in 2010 to express his desire for getting fitted for the legs.
Last July, he travelled to the company’s headquarters in Auckland where for three weeks he was fitted for and practised using an exoskeleton.
“The first time I went up and down the stairs, that’s when I knew I was going to buy them,” he said, adding that he paid about $123,000 for the device.
His custom-built bionic legs were completed in January and “RoboBrogan” was born.
Brogan returned to New Zealand that month for four months of training with his legs.
At first, he couldn’t stand up because he had lost flexibility in his ankles.
But after two weeks of working with a physiotherapist, Brogan was finally able to get to his feet and take a walk.
Within another two weeks he had mastered stairs, sidestepping, moving through doors and walking down ramps, all with one side effect Brogan refers to as the “Rex Smile.”
“It’s just the brightest smile,” he said. “I’d almost forgotten how tall I was.”
People who use wheelchairs often have a number of health problems relating to constantly sitting and not using their legs, said Dr.
Patrick Potter, the medical director for Western University’s spinal cord injury rehabilitation program.
He also practises at Parkwood Hospital in London, Ontario and worked with Brogan during part of his rehabilitation.
Not standing for long periods of time can diminish bone density since bones aren’t bearing the same weight as when a person stands, causing bladder problems— especially for men since they normally urinate when standing— and reduces flexibility in joints due to a lack of moving, he said.
Any opportunity to get a person standing and moving their legs can help alleviate many of these problems, Potter said, and researchers are now looking at how exoskeletons, bionic legs and other mobility assistance devices could benefit those with mobility challenges.
Although it’s still unclear how much bionic legs might help with physical health problems, Potter said there’s no question they work wonders for a person’s confidence.
“Just being upright and able to stand, reach into a cupboard and turn around, all of these are great achievements,” he said.
Potter gave Brogan the bill of health he needed to buy his bionic legs and said he is the first person to have such a device in London.
There are a number of companies around the world working on bionic legs and mobility assisting exoskeletons such as Argo Medical Technologies Ltd. in Israel, Honda Motors in Japan and several firms in the U.S.
Rex Bionics was formed eight years ago by two men with backgrounds in robotics and engineering who both have mothers using wheelchairs.
Lee Warn, a customer services and sales representative for the firm who also uses the legs, said the company’s aim is to assist anyone with “any debilitating movement impairment” including people suffering from diseases such as muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis.
The Rex Bionics Robotic Exoskeleton is worn over the legs and is operated with a joystick, Warn said, adding the device is modelled after human legs with knees and ankles.
So far, the firm has sold several of the units.
People who approach the company to buy the legs must get documentation from their doctor and a physiotherapist showing they have the necessary range of movement in their legs, otherwise they could damage part of their body.
If needed, people can work with a therapist to improve any mobility problems prior to using the legs, Warn said.
From there, they are measured and fitted for a custom-built exoskeleton and training begins.
“It’s a slow, pardon the pun, baby-step process of making sure that when they’re in the device they’re not getting any redness, soreness, that kind of thing,” Warn said. “We need to take care, make sure we’re not going to be injuring them.”
He added the company is currently working on an adjustable exoskeleton that could be used in rehabilitation facilities by multiple people without the need for custom fitting.
Warn, who has been in a wheelchair for 22 years, said when he got his bionic legs two years ago, he felt an independence that he thought he had lost.
“It’s not that I put Rex on so that I can go to the beach or I put Rex on so I can go and make a cup of tea. It’s just actually standing and walking around. All the subsequent things I can do from that are kind of cool. But the best thing about it is, I’m just up, I’m in control and I’m moving myself around,” he said. “If I see someone and I haven’t been in Rex for awhile, I actually want to get up and walk with them.”
Brogan, who decided to make his home in London following the crash, is expecting his legs to arrive before Friday (April 20) and he plans to use them as much as possible.
“I’ll be walking everyday.”
Having a chance to stand and walk again is something he wants to share with other people.
Earlier this year, he opened a clinic in Byron which focuses on mobility therapy and can house up to six people as well as a staff of rehabilitation workers and therapists.
Potter said Brogan’s clinic is innovative since its owner can relate to its clients.
“He’d have a better understanding of their needs.”
There are machines to help people improve flexibility in their legs and knees and prepare their bodies for standing and walking again.
There’s even a small indoor swimming pool to help people get used to moving their limbs again.
“I wanted other people to have a similar experience to learn from my experiences and mistakes, to have a straight path to recovery,” Brogan said. “I wanted to create a place that will take advantage of all the emerging technologies that are becoming available.”
And the clinic is not just a source of income for Brogan.
He will continue his own rehabilitation at the facility with the aid of his bionic legs.
“I’m not only the president, I’m also a client.”
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