Friday, June 16th, 2017
Living life to the fullest
Local man paralyzed in 2009 talks about robotic exoskeleton that allows him to walk
By William Kincaid
Todd Reigelsperger, a 2010 Coldwater High School graduate, speaks to a crowd at. . .
COLDWATER - At the end of 2009, Todd Reigelsperger learned he was a paraplegic and was told he'd never walk again.
Since then, the young man has skydived out of an airplane twice, can be seen regularly walking throughout town and has just returned from a trek of the West Coast, where he drove from Oakland, California, to Seattle, Washington. Reigelsperger is now preparing to participate in his first 5K on Saturday morning during Zuma Days.
Reigelsperger this week revealed to an audience at the Coldwater Public Library that his journey from that initial dire medical prognosis nearly a decade ago to the acquisition of a life-transforming exoskeleton last summer that allows him to walk for hours at a time.
He was accompanied by his friend V.J. Westerheide, who has remained by his side since the accident that caused Reigelsperger to lose the use of his legs due to a spinal cord injury.
Westerheide said one of his greatest memories is having the honor and privilege last year of seeing Reigelsperger walk for the first time since the accident during a medical trial at Cincinnati's Daniel Drake Center.
"We all go through a time in our life where there's a higher being involved in something in your life," Westerheide said. "This was it. For this all to come together was incredible. I don't know how it happened."
Reigelsperger was a Coldwater High School senior on Dec. 29, 2009, when his car slid off a slushy Siegrist-Jutte Road, flipping end over end before coming to rest in a farm field.
He fractured his T10 vertebra. Comparing it to a tooth pick, Reigelsperger said the vertebra didn't snap but rather splintered. He was taken to Ohio State Medical Center for a surgery to remove some of the pieces and have two steel rods inserted.
"I was 18 at the time, and it was something not everyone's ready to hear," he recalled, pointing out he was active in sports and always on the go. "They said I couldn't walk again, and so it was a lot for me."
Reigelsperger said at the time he didn't know what the future held. The only option at the time was a wheelchair, "the same technology they had had for hundreds of years," he said.
Since the accident, Reigelsperger graduated from Wright State University in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in communications. He came back to Coldwater to live and work as a customer service representative at Heritage Insurance Services.
Reigelsperger said Westerheide not long ago had heard that a Veterans' Affairs office near Cleveland had contracted with a company called ReWalk to help injured veterans "get up and be mobile" with an exoskeleton suit, technology first developed by the military before being taken up by the industrial and then medical sector.
"So we tried to figure out how we could get one of these suits. We didn't really know what we were doing," he said. "V.J. and I spent about six months just researching online, calling people."
In July 2016, the two traveled to Cincinnati for a trial, where Reigelsperger physically qualified for an exoskeleton. He now has the sixth generation of the suit, one of only 150 units in the world. The devices are produced in Israel.
"We're very fortunate and certainly blessed that he ended up with one and that he was also eligible for it physically," Westerheide said.
One requirement was having ample bone density, Westerheide noted.
"Todd had been in a chair for six-and-a-half years. Your bone density weakens in time, certainly," he said. "Fortunately, Todd pretty much from Day One began to stand in leg braces ... and had a table also where he could stand every day for roughly an hour or so and maintain that bone density."
Connecting with Bob Hibner, CEO of Community Sports & Therapy, they were able to arrange for delivery of the exoskeleton to the Celina firm, which was also certified to provide Reigelsperger with six weeks of training.
Soon afterward, Reigelsperger was able to walk down the aisle as a groomsman in his friend Kurt Westerheide's, V.J.'s son's, August wedding.
Reigelsperger explained how the exoskeleton - which he and Westerheide dubbed "Exo" - works. Equipped with a computer on the back and motors at the hip and knees joints, the exoskeleton is controlled by a watch. It moves at around 1 mph and has a battery providing up to four hours of walking time.
Reigelsperger uses a set of hand crutches to maneuver while using the exoskeleton.
"It's not just me walking the device or just the device walking," he said. "We kind of respond to each other's movements. If I mess up or the suit messes up, it stops."
"You can imagine the health benefits (of walking) ... certainly blood pressure, heart rate, circulation, bone density. Just on and on and on," Westerheide said.
Since he acquired the unit, Reigelsperger and V.J Westerheide have spent time walking a few hours three to four times a week at the village park, bike path, Briarwood Village nursing home and other areas of town.
"We've just kind of been figuring out how to use it more and more often and how to use it to be more active," Reigelsperger said.
Loose pebbles and stones are sometimes difficult to walk over and he can't climb up and down steps yet but Reigelsperger can walk on most surfaces and ramps.
Saturday's 5k will be an experiment of sorts for Reigelsperger as he'll figure out where to start the walk after evaluating the course. Westerheide said Reigelsperger is capable, though, of walking all three miles.
"Todd and I always say little things turn into big things over time," Westerheide said. "An example of that was this past winter when the first time in about seven years he was able to walk into school and actually use the drinking fountain again, standing."
A few weeks ago, Reigelsperger "kicked a stone on the road for the very first time," Westerheide said.
"Those are just cool things you've got to appreciate," he added.
Westerheide said Reigelsperger's exoskeleton is unquestionably "a fantastic thing." But it's only a bridge.
"This isn't the final answer," he said. "There are more things coming. There's more technology. Things are really getting exciting. So this is the bridge to keep him healthy and until the next big thing."