High-Tech Suit Helps Local Teen Walk Again

Encinitas Teen Becomes First In San Diego County To Test Ekso Suit

An Encinitas teen is the first person in San Diego County to test out a special suit that is helping paralyzed patients walk again.

On Friday morning, 17-year-old Joey Abicca didn't have to roll across the floor because he was able to walk across it.

"I'm a little nervous, but it's going to be a lot of fun," he said, just before being strapped into Ekso, a state-of-the-art battery-powered robotic exoskeleton.

Three years ago, Abicca was a champion surfer, but while helping build jumps for BMX bikes, he was accidentally pinned by a small dirt-moving vehicle.

"I was expecting a surf contest the next day and I was in the hospital," recalled Abicca.

At age 14, Abicca lost the use of his legs.

"I probably wouldn't be sitting upright like this if it wasn't for Project Walk," he told 10News.

Project Walk, a non-profit spinal cord injury recovery center in Carlsbad, helped Joey gain strength and mobility to become the perfect choice to debut Ekso here.

"It's basically trying to re-teach the nervous system how to walk again," explained Project Walk co-founder Eric Harness.

Ekso is not right for everyone, however. Candidates need to be able to hold on to a walker or crutches and they need the proper range of hip motion.

Ekso is made from aircraft-grade aluminum and carbon fiber. It weighs about 50 pounds, most of that self-supported. It costs $140,000, 10News learned.

"The device that we have here today is really for rehab; it's for rehab centers," said Ryan Bretz, regional director of sales for Ekso Bionics, the company that makes the Ekso robotic suit.

Bretz said the company's goal is to make a lighter, sleeker and less-expensive version for home use by the end of 2014.

For now, it's up to Abicca to demonstrate how it works.

"It's awesome to feel standing again," he said after taking his first few steps unaided by anyone but the Ekso while holding onto a walker.

As onlookers cheered and clapped at Project Walk, Abicca kept going.

"I take it day by day; I mean, that's the best way I've found," Abicca said with a smile on his face.

He said this is just the beginning and that his ultimate goal is "walking without it."

Abicca also demonstrated the Ekso at the Padres-Diamondbacks home game Friday night.

Project Walk is trying to raise funds to become one of the first 20 rehab centers in the country to have an Ekso.

For more information on Project Walk, visit www.projectwalk.org.

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