Woman Walks A Mile Using Robotic Exoskeleton

For 10 years, Diana Pelletier has had one day that has been mostly about herself. Every year in June, she has taken part in some activity celebrating life to help reclaim the day that left her paralyzed from the chest down. She calls this annual event Reclaiming the Day.  This year, Pelletier, 44, of Mohnton, walked a mile using an EksoNR robotic exoskeleton. When she crossed the finish line on Saturday, it was for others as well as herself.

"For the first 10 years, I was doing stuff all about me," she said. "But this year, it really felt right once the pieces started falling into place, maybe especially because of COVID, it just felt like it was time to take it to the next level and share Reclaiming the Day with other people."

This year, Pelletier added a fundraising component to her tradition similar to how people sponsor runners and walkers during 5K and similar events. She raised over $11,000 to help other Reading Hospital Rehabilitation patients use the device she refers to as Eddie.

Reclaiming the day

"This is the 11th year, and it will be the 14th anniversary of the accident on June 16," Pelletier said. "Every year coming up towards the anniversary, I would get very depressed because of everything I had lost in the accident."

In 2007, Pelletier was in a car accident while driving to an event in Gettysburg. While the other passengers, including her children, who were 22 months and 3½  weeks old at that time, suffered minor injuries, Pelletier's were more severe. She broke her neck between the fourth and fifth vertebrae, broke bones in her left hand and suffered significant head trauma.

Pelletier refers to the accident and her injuries as her "Humpty Dumpty fall." "I had been strolling through life when suddenly everything changed," she said prior to her walk. "After the accident I was left broken in mind, body and spirit, unsure of what each new day would bring."

Pelletier was placed in a medically induced coma for a week and a half after the accident. She spent seven weeks in a titanium halo, unable to turn her head, and was in the intensive care unit for four weeks. She then was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital four hours from her home, which meant she was only able to see her very young children on the weekends.

In the rehabilitation hospital, her function slowly began to come back. She was able to move her shoulders, followed by her elbows, then wrists and the fingers of her right hand one at a time. She then noticed, when she was being turned from side to side by a nurse or an aide, that she felt her right leg was helping to push her over. Her physical therapists confirmed there was movement in her right leg and started trying to have her stand.

Being able to stand, even for a short period of time, would become important years later when she was evaluated for using the exoskeleton. Pelletier primarily uses a power wheelchair now but can use a walker when someone is available to assist her. Unfortunately, with her son having been just a few weeks old at the time, the anniversary of the accident is near his birthday. In addition to being depressed about what the accident took from her, Pelletier would feel worse about feeling that way around his birthday.

"I would have mom guilt because it was his birthday coming up and I would not be as excited as I should be about his birthday," Pelletier said. Pelletier's Reclaiming the Day tradition started a few years after the accident as she no longer wanted that time of year to be focused on what she lost and being sad.

It was a talk with her now-husband, Jeff, about how she wanted to be able to do something normal again that led to the first Reclaiming the Day activity. She used the example of going on a motorcycle ride and, according to Pelletier, Jeff said, "OK, let's do it."

She was able to get on the motorcycle with his help, and the two set out on a ride. "We got a mile before the anxiety and the weight of the helmet drove me crazy," Pelletier said. "It was a 2-mile motorcycle ride, but the excitement of it all is what caused me to start doing the rest of them."

Since that first activity, Pelletier has gone on a hot-air balloon ride, flown a Cessna four-seater airplane, gone horseback riding, took a family trip to Walt Disney World, sailed on a 42-foot sailboat, went whitewater rafting, went soaring and went jet skiing in Bermuda. Last year's activity was a family picnic in the woods that her children helped plan. 

Crossing the finish line

Pelletier completed her mile in just under three hours. Before the walk, she estimated it would take her three to four hours to complete all 5,280 feet. "It was beautifully overwhelming to cross the finish line," she said Monday. "I think part of me couldn't believe that it was done, that I had done it. The other part of me was just ready to collapse."

The last 500 feet were the hardest, she said. When one of her physical therapists asked her if she wanted the exoskeleton to do more of the work, Pelletier replied "no." "I just wanted to finish off as strongly as I had started," she said. "I cried when I crossed the finish line. I think partly from exhaustion and the realization that I had literally just walked a mile."

Pelletier had a number of supporters cheering her on as she walked. 

"Being able to walk through the halls and have people encouraging me along the way and having my family and friends being able to walk with me, that was huge," Pelletier said. She credits her incredible physical therapists for helping her reach the point that should could do this and for taking time out of their own schedule to take part in this special day with her. 

Pelletier's physical therapists were happy to be a part of the event. "I am very proud of Diana and honored to be part of this day," said Nicole LeVan-Rubida, clinical supervisor outpatient rehabilitation services, a board-certified clinical specialist in neurologic physical therapy. "Being able to use this great technology to give someone an experience like this, to inspire others, to be able to provide service for others and to push the human spirit is why I do what I do.

"People like Diana do amazing things and to cross the finish line with her was an amazing feeling of accomplishment for not only her but for me as a physical therapist. We both were emotional and hugged, because the statement of the commitment and work mean so much more then just a mile."

Giving back

It was after she crossed the finish line that Pelletier was told how much was raised as part of the event. Pelletier initially set out to raise $5,280, the number of feet in a mile. By Monday, she had raised $11,144. "That in itself is overwhelming and just crazy," Pelletier said.

The funds will be donated to the EXSO Patient Assistance Fund at the Reading Hospital Foundation. It was through the foundation and generous donations that the exoskeleton was able to be bought for the rehabilitation facility. The patient assistance fund will provide financial help for those who would like to have additional sessions with the exoskeleton.

"We are honored to be part of Diana's Reclaim the Day activity this year," said Katherine Thornton, Reading Hospital Foundation president. "What's so remarkable about this is the selflessness of Diana, knowing that others in her position might not have the opportunity to use the exoskeleton without these patient assistance funds.

"The gift of giving just goes on through her. It will give some people an opportunity to use it that might not have been able to. That's really such a wonderful thing." Having this fund is important because not all patients, even those who would benefit from using the exoskeleton physically and mentally, are able to use the device. Dr. Kelley Crozier, chairwoman of the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Reading Hospital, said not all insurance policies will cover patients using the exoskeleton.

The device does more than just help patients relearn to walk, it helps with balance and organ function as well as other benefits for patients with spinal cord injuries, those who suffered a stroke or have brain injuries.

"To have this fund where we can help patients afford to utilize it is just wonderful," Crozier said. "It's a wonderful gift." Thornton added donations came in from the local community and from people in other states, including people Pelletier has never met before.

"I think that's the most humbling and overwhelming piece of it to me," Pelletier said. "In the past, soon after the accident there were people who did fundraisers for me so that I could get equipment that I needed. That was all really incredible and amazing." Now, Pelletier has all the equipment she needs, so she wants to help others experience using Eddie.

"I started asking at therapy if there was anything that I could raise money for there which was when we talked about the EXSO Patient Assistance Fund, and I could pay it forward by raising money for other people to benefit from Eddie," Pelletier said.

Pelletier hopes the advances in technology continue and that some day exoskeletons like Eddie are available for people to use at home. The Reading Hospital Foundation is still accepting donations in honor of Reclaiming the Day. Donations can be made at events.towerhealth.org/make-a-gift. Donors should select "other" from the gift purpose menu and then write in Reclaiming the Day in the new field.

Meeting, using Eddie

The idea for Pelletier to walk a mile using Eddie as this year's activity started with her physical therapists. One day while at therapy and walking in the exoskeleton, Pelletier was talking with one of her therapists about how she was looking for a Reclaiming the Day activity for this year. When her therapist first suggested walking, Pelletier brushed it off but then thought about it more.

She brought the idea up to her family and then asked her therapists if they really thought she could do it. Their response was, "Absolutely." "They never wavered in their belief in my ability to do this and for them to help me," Pelletier said.

The journey to this year's activity started when Pelletier moved to the Reading area from upstate New York in August 2018. The next year she was connected with Reading Hospital Rehabilitation at Wyomissing. 

"A year ago in March, a week or so before the shutdown, I had been evaluated for the exoskeleton," Pelletier said. "I was super excited to get started and then COVID hit." It was not until almost exactly a year later that she was able to start using the exoskeleton. During that year of waiting, Pelletier set goals for herself such as standing up for 15 minutes at a time. She has focused on strength and endurance to complete the mile walk. Currently her record for standing without the use of any other equipment is 53 minutes.

She attributes her being able to walk with the exoskeleton to the endurance she's built up and the support of her physical therapists.

"They are phenomenal in their encouragement of me and walking with Eddie has given me new hope," she said. "Even if I can't replicate it on my own functionally, being able to walk like I'm walking, that's the closest I've been to walking for real in a very long time.

"Every time I'm done, I'm so filled with excitement because I just did it. It's just really powerful." As word spread among the other patients at Reading Hospital Rehabilitation at Wyomissing, they cheered her on and wished her luck as she made her way through the hallways in the exoskeleton.

"Diana's working so hard, she's an inspiration to all of the patients and to the staff," Crozier said. "We're just so thrilled to be a part of it." Reclaiming the Day has become a joyous event each year, but Pelletier wants others to know that no matter how far she has come she still has bad days.

"I do think it's really important to say that while I do this every year, I still have really bad days and days when I'm angry about my circumstances," she said. "I don't want people in similar situations to feel like, 'oh so she got it and now she's good,' because I'm definitely not. "My hope is that people will be inspired to push themselves beyond where they are if they're in a bad place. To know that those bad moments are still there, we have to honor them because they're still really real."

Please contact our knowledgeable staff at Teter Orthotics & Prosthetics for any questions. We’ve been providing expert orthotic and prosthetic services in Michigan since 1955 and have grown to 22 locations, including Traverse City, Sault Ste. Marie, Alpena, and Grayling!

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