AUSTIN -- Research into spinal cord injuries can include stem cells, prosthetic implants and even synthetic biology that bridges damaged areas.
One Central Texas healthcare facility is offering a non-invasive clinical trial that poses very low risk to spinal cord patients.
Four years after a spinal cord injury left him a paraplegic, 25-year-old Joe Fischer has learned just about every wheelchair trick, so he decided to take the next step.
It's called the ReWalk rehabilitation system. St. David's Rehabilitation Hospital is the first facility in Central Texas to get it. The motor-driven, robotic device weighs 44 pounds and allows patients to walk by detecting shifts within their sense of balance and then moving their legs in a natural gait.
"I call it Robo Joe," said Fischer.
Robo Joe Fischer can laugh now. Four years ago, pain replaced laughter. He wasn't wearing a harness when he fell 25 feet from a deer blind in his home state of Missouri.
"My original thought was, 'This really hurts, but, like everything else, I'm just going to roll over and get up, and I'm going to walk it off.' I went to roll over, and I realized my back was broken," Fischer said.
Shortly after the accident, Fischer relocated to Austin and became a regular at St. David's Rehab Hospital.
"The big thing with Joe's injury is the trunk control is key," said Bob Rambusek, the senior physical therapist at St. David's Rehabilitation Hospital. "You can only challenge him so much in the sitting position."
"Sit in a chair for 12 hours today and don't move, and tell me how it feels," said Fischer.
The ReWalk device helps strengthen his arms and legs, allowing muscles that had once atrophied to get stronger. And that's not the only benefit.
"When you are stimulating muscles and bones and areas of the body that were not able to be stimulated before, you can stimulate some of the nerve pathways that can provide some improvement," said Juan Latorre, M.D., the medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury and Amputee Program at St. David's Rehabilitation Hospital and affiliate member of NeuroTexas Institute.
Fischer and his therapists say at times, it's almost hard to believe this futuristic technology exists.
"These are not goals that we had for spinal cord injuries just a couple of months ago," said Rambusek. "This was in the research and development lab just two years ago, so now we're actually putting it into practice."
"It feels pretty cool to stand up and kiss my girlfriend," said Fischer. "It feels pretty cool to walk by my wheelchair. You know, it's just kind of an out of this world feeling."
Europe has approved the device for personal use, but the FDA still requires it to be used only in clinics trials in the United States.