Agnes Fejerdy no longer walks only in her dreams.
Fejerdy, a pretty blonde who laughs easily and looks you straight in the eye, was paralyzed below the waist when her spine was severed in a car wreck in her native Hungary seven years ago. All indications were that the former gymnast would live out her life looking up at the world from her wheelchair.
Yet her hope was strong. So strong that for a time after the accident, she saw herself in her dreams walking, free of her wheelchair.
“But after some years — I don't know why — I dreamed I was in my chair,” she said.
Now, a robotic exoskeleton has allowed her to take her first independent steps in years. In March, Fejerdy, 36, began participating in a clinical trial of the device — called the ReWalk — in Philadelphia, where she and her husband moved three years ago.
The device allows her to move independently in reality and in her dreams.
“Now, I'm just like regular people,” Fejerdy said with a laugh.
Fejerdy visited the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center on Thursday to demonstrate the device designed to help people with spinal cord injuries gain mobility. OU doctors and therapists hope to raise about $160,000 for the device produced by Israel-based Argo Medical Technologies so that other patients can taste the freedom that Fejerdy enjoys each time she uses it in the clinic. Only about 16 are available to patients in clinics worldwide.
Fejerdy's hands pushed her feet into the running shoes attached to ribbons of steel that run up to the waist, like a stripped down version of the exoskeleton used in the movie “Iron Man.” The device includes a series of straps, sensors and a three-hour battery pack.
She pressed a mode selector on a strap clamped around her right wrist. The ReWalk quickly pushed Fejerdy to her feet, her crutches aiding her balance.
The device waited for the next command, and, with a slight pause, Fejerdy took off at a quick clip. The device is designed to move fast enough to get the patient across the street before the traffic light changes. It weighs about 40 pounds. The wearer navigates uneven surfaces, ramps, stairs and doorways by leaning and pushing the mode selection. “It completely changed my life,” Fejerdy said. “It's more freedom, and people look me in the eyes.”
Watching all this through tears were Tulsans Janet Jessee and Whitney Jessee. Three years ago, Bud and Janet Jessee took the family on a vacation in Honolulu. After Whitney and her brother, Peter Jessee, now 22, returned to the beach after their first surfing lessons, Peter said his back hurt. Within an hour, his feet became numb, and he needed help getting to his feet.
He was rushed by ambulance to the hospital, where doctors determined he was permanently paralyzed because of surfer's myelopathy. Peter arched his back so much while paddling through the surf that a blood vessel to his spine became kinked, depriving the spinal cord of oxygen.
“He's 5-feet, 11-inches and was quite an athlete ... We brought him home in a wheelchair,” Janet Jessee said.
“A lot of changes,” Whitney Jessee said, biting her lip and crying.
Peter is taking therapy at OU, and the family hopes the center soon will get a ReWalk.
OU is recognized for its entrepreneurial spirit and is a leader in the use of cutting-edge technology to help children and adults with paralysis and mobility issues, said Martha Ferretti, professor and director of occupational and physical therapy at OU College of Medicine. She said everyone has high hopes that a ReWalk will soon be used at OU.
“We're trying to be the resource for Oklahomans and people in the region to access this kind of technology,” Ferretti said.
Janet Jessee said when the device becomes available for personal use, probably in 2012, they intend to buy one for their son.
“He has dreams about walking,” she said.
Fejerdy said people who find themselves in situations like hers and Peter Jessee's should not give up their dreams.
“Keep yourself healthy. Just trust in yourself to stand up. Just try; you can get it,” she said.