The thrill of walking After 24 years in a wheelchair, a chance at ‘miracle’

2013-10-26 00:00

WALKING may seem like a mundane activity most of us do without thinking. However, for Taniel Webb of Greytown, walking is a dream come true.

After being wheelchair-bound for 24 years, Webb recently got to experience the thrill of walking, thanks to a bionic suit.

Webb lost the use of her legs and left arm in a car accident when she was eight years old. She has been in a wheelchair ever since.

This year, a company in Johannesburg called Just Walk Bionics opened a unique rehabilitation centre. It allows people with lower extremity paralysis or weakness to walk again by means of a bionic suit. The suit, known as Ekso, was brought from America by Just Walk founder Justin Smith.

Smith is an incomplete quadriplegic. He experienced walking in the suit in America after being determined to walk again and set out to bring the experience to South Africans in similar situations to him.

Just Walk and the Ekso suit have helped Webb stand up straight and walk, an experience she says is “indescribable”. Her mother Antoinette was there to share in Webb’s joy.

“We found out about Just Walk when Taniel’s aunt phoned and told us about it. I phoned them up and they told me to bring her. When they strapped her into the suit she was bent over. Then the suit went beep and she stood up in front of me. Her eyes were level with mine and she said ‘Wow Mom, I did not realise I was this tall!’ I just wanted to cry. It was an emotional experience,” said Antoinette.

For Webb, the experience was unforgettable and she would love to do it again: “It was just amazing! I walked for the first time. I can’t really explain it; it was like experiencing a miracle.”

Walking in the suit was difficult at first for Webb, as it worked muscles she had not used in decades. One crutch had to be strapped in her left hand with velcro because she could not hold it on her own, but according to Webb it was all worth it. The experience has also motivated her on a personal level.

“I have been inspired by my walk. I now do biokinetic exercises to help make me stronger. Everyone in this situation should try this,” Webb told Weekend Witness.

According to the Just Walk information booklet, the Ekso suit is a battery- operated, wearable suit that acts as an exoskeleton for the wearer. It is essentially a bionic walking suit that walks for the wearer and can help exercise the body in ways normal therapy cannot. It is not readily available yet, which is why Just Walk offers people a chance to experience it.

• annzra.naidoo@witness.co.za

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