Published Spring 2016
by Stephanie Hunt
It’s a busy Friday morning in the Roper Hospital rehabilitation clinic, and a big day for Adam Gorlitsky. He’s getting fitted for a personal ReWalk exoskeleton, a robotic device that looks like it walked right off the IronMan movie set. Velcro gets tightened; straps readjusted; nuts and bolts and battery packs all tightened just so. It’s a high tech contraption. A mobility miracle.
“Wow, this is incredible. It feels great,” says Adam, pressing the “stand” button on his wristwatch control system. Then slowly he shifts his weight forward, bracing his two strong arms on the assisting crutches and braces to begin unfolding his waist, straightening his shaking, spasming legs as he rises from a sitting position. On his own. His own two legs.
The guys got legs, all right. And guts. And a dream.
For the first 19 years of his life, Adam did this – this standing upright, this biped thing called walking – the way most of us do: automatically, without thinking and without struggle, besides, perhaps, the occasional creaky knee or protesting hip. He played basketball and soccer, walked to classes at the University of South Carolina, cruised around the world with that semi-invincible nonchalance that most 19 year olds with a bright future ahead of them do.
Then in the blink of a sleepy eye, on a drive back to Charleston after a late night packing boxes for an apartment move, everything changed. Adam dozed off for three seconds, ran off the road and woke up in a new reality.
“When the doctors showed me X-ray images of my severed spinal cord and told me I’d never walk again, it was devastating, a gut punch,” says Adam.
That was December 30, 2005. Now, exactly ten years later, Adam is embarking on what he hopes will be yet another new reality. On December 30, 2015, Adam brought home his own individual ReWalk unit after his successful IGotLegs.com and GoFundMe campaign raised the $100,000 needed to pay for the device—the first personal unit to be issued in South Carolina, and one of only a handful of personal units in the world. For nearly six months prior, Adam had trained and practiced on the Roper Rehabilitation Hospital exoskeleton. Roper’s ReWalk technology (a bigger backpack-based unit than the personal device) is part of the hospital’s Spinal Cord Injury rehab program, which was the first in the state and one of only 27 in the country to offer the exoskeleton technology.
He’s become somewhat of a celebrity walking the halls of Roper Hospital and outside along the sidewalks of Calhoun Street, with his ever-encouraging Roper physical therapist, Kyle, at his side. With her help, Adam’s putting in the miles, becoming more adept every day, with every courageous step, with the complexities and challenges of harnessing a X pounds of technology to move otherwise unresponsive legs. Because Adam not only wants to know once again what it feels like to be able to hug his mother standing up, or look a buddy or family member or girl friend in the eye, eye-level to upright eye-level again, he’s making strides toward a bigger goal.
Adam aims to be the first paraplegic to walk in the Cooper River Bridge Run and Walk.
“After taking those first steps (in the exoskeleton), I felt empowered. ‘I can do this,’ I realized,” says Adam. “And after my first few sessions, I said, ‘Bridge Run’ – I wanted a goal. And I don’t want to stop there, I hope to do other races, skydive, bungee jump, travel, who knows?”
“I’ve lived three lives physically: The first 19 years I was able-bodied, the past 10 years I was disabled, and this next chapter of my life I will be re-enabled,” says Adam. Though he was fully independent—going back to finish his college degree, living in an apartment, driving, playing sports, dating—via his wheelchair for years, Adam believes that rejoining the upright ranks of the able-bodied again will be an emotional as well as physical boost.
“My injury affects me on a primary level, but also affects everyone I come in contact with on a secondary level,” he explains. “Relationships are what life’s all about, and it’s why ‘I Got Legs’ is so important to me. I want what my parents have had for the past 30-plus years—a loving marriage. This exoskeleton makes it easier for me to find that. I finally feel as though I am ready to let women into my world physically as well as emotionally again. I can’t tell you how amazing it is to be able to know I’ll be able to walk down the aisle with a bride or hug a daughter standing up.”
In the meanwhile, conquering the bridge will be challenge enough. Heck, it is for many of us whose muscles respond to messages from our brains. For a paraplegic, it’s an enormous undertaking, and Adam acknowledges there’s a chance it might not yet be a doable one (there may be issues with device’s battery life, etc.), but whether he crosses the Bridge Run finish line with the throngs of others in April is beside the point.
He’s got legs. He’s got a goal. He’s got determination, and a broader vision – the kind of clearer view that one can get by standing up tall. “It’s not just about me and my exoskeleton,” says Adam. “I want to help create a safe environment for people with disabilities and their friends and families to feel safe in. We are all in this together.”