Can the impossible come true? Skeptics would say no, adding that the laws of reality simply don’t bend.
Believers might answer that they’re being too down in the mouth, that miracles happen every day. Realists might take an approach that straddles the two divides.
Sure, reality usually appears stubbornly unbendable. Still, we don’t know the sum of its substance, and wonderful occurrences happen more often than many think.
I suspect that’s the approach that Air Force veteran Dean Juntunen would take. According to the Upper Peninsula Road Runners Club, the 59-year-old Michigan resident had once worked with ICBM as a missile launch officer.
However, in 1991, he experienced a career-ending accident. While removing a rope swing from a tree, a branch broke, sending him on a 30-foot plummet that broke his back and paralyzed him.
Not one to easily adjust to a sedentary life, Juntunen continued with athletic activities even though he had lost the use of his lower body. He participated in numerous wheelchair races over the decades.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, he participated in 91 marathons. One can’t help but think he’s an adventuresome guy, the sort to snap at any opportunity.
So it doesn’t seem surprising that he said yes when the Milwaukee’s Zablocki Veteran Affairs Medical Center’s spinal cord injury clinic asked him if he wanted to walk again.
The VA was conducting a study to see if robotic exoskeletons affect users’ lives across various metrics. That’s how Juntunen found himself strapped into a metal frame.
Motors power the joints around his legs and hip, while a back-mounted computer handles the necessary calculations. Juntunen initiate various movements thanks to a dongle he holds in his hand.
The Ironwood Daily Globe reported that he said, “I had not gone from a sitting to a standing position since 1991, so just doing that is fun. It’s fun to from sitting to standing and then I start walking with the robot and I can’t really feel it or control it.
“I’ve got a complete spinal cord injury, so I’m paralyzed from the rib-cage down, basically.” However, Juntunen added that walking with the exoskeleton isn’t quite the same as ordinary strolling.
“When I’m walking with that robot, my mind feels like I’m walking,” he said. “But in actuality, it’s more that I’m riding the robot than actually walking.”
Zach Hodgson, who helps train Juntunen on the machine, said, “He likens it to walking on stilts because he’s paralyzed and he can’t feel his legs. The computer walks for him.”
Still, it’s an incredible experience. “Dean has discovered it’s more of a workout than he expected, and he loves workouts,” added Cheryl Lasselle, another physical therapist.
Exoskeleton project manager Joe Berman hopes the project will help numerous veterans, saying, “The sky is literally the limit. We’re excited about helping veterans get up and sometimes tower over us.”
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