Exoskeleton Helps Injured Teen Walk Again
After Alexis Halbert suffered a catastrophic spinal cord injury during a freak equestrian accident, she lost all feeling below her belly button — and worse, she could no longer move her legs.
But after a month of rehabilitation at Shepherd Center in Atlanta, the Eau Gallie High sophomore has embarked on a "remarkable" recovery, Dr. Anna Choo Elmers said. “I’ll tell you, I’m so pleasantly surprised — you may even want to say pleasantly shocked — at how fast she got movement back in her legs," Elmers said.
"It started really slow. But we were so excited every morning, because she would show me something new," she said.
“She came to us with no movement in her legs. And by the time she left us, she was able to negotiate four stairs with a handrail and crutch, and then walk 10 feet with forearm crutches," she said.
The 15-year-old suffered two fractured vertebrae during a July 18 competition accident at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, North Carolina. Her horse, Charisma, got her legs tangled in jump rails and flipped over, partially landing atop Halbert.
Charisma broke her neck and died instantly.
"I was so sad for her in the beginning, because of the circumstances of her injury. Having to mourn the loss of her horse — and having to mourn the loss of her independence," Elmers said. Elmers is a Shepherd Center physical medicine and rehabilitation physician who specializes in spinal cord injury rehabilitation. She likened Halbert's journey in the recovery process to the beginning of a long novel like "War and Peace."
Chapters 1 and 2 were the accident and her three-hour emergency surgery at Greenville Memorial Hospital in Greenville, South Carolina, where doctors installed two rods and eight screws.
Chapter 3: Thirty-four days of around-the-clock inpatient care at Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation facility specializing in patients with spinal cord injuries.
Elmers said Halbert was suffering from "very significant" pain when she arrived. Her treatment included walking on a treadmill with mechanical assistance from a Lokomat, a robotic exoskeleton.
“I have full feeling in my right leg, completely. My left leg is still not completely normal yet. And my stomach, I can suck it in now. But it’s still kind of numb," Halbert said Wednesday.
“At the beginning, I had to think really hard and put a lot of effort into moving my legs. But, now, I can just move them without thinking about it," she said.
Monday, Halbert and her mother, Liz, moved next door into a Shepherd Center philanthropy-funded one-bedroom apartment for four to six weeks of outpatient therapy. Elmers likened these therapy sessions — which last from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. — as a boot camp designed to boost Alexis' endurance so she can someday resume daily activities.
"Attitude is everything!! And here is the PROOF! @alexisshalbert, you are an inspiration to all ages!" Satellite High Assistant Principal Jannette Connor tweeted Aug. 21 alongside a video of Halbert practicing with a walker.
"Keep that determined mindset and know this entire county is cheering you on every STEP of the way!" Connor wrote.
Liz Halbert said her daughter's outpatient regimen will include occupational therapy, physical therapy, Lokomat sessions, swimming pool therapy and mental health counseling. “She went from having no movement to now walking and taking stairs — and we’re just at the beginning of that," Elmers said.
"She still needs the crutches, and some help. But our time for her in day program is to get all that better, so that she can move a lot more independently," she said.
"And then, ultimately, I cannot wait to see her not use anything at all."