On a clear December morning in 2007, six tonnes of steel fell 25 storeys from a crane, onto a trailer at a construction site near Ground Zero in New York.
Inside was 39-year-old Toronto architect Robert Woo, who had moved to New York to work on Goldman Sachs’s new headquarters.
Miraculously, he survived, but his spine was crushed. Woo was left paralyzed from the chest down and told that he would never walk again. “I thought my life was over,” said Woo.
More than 10 years later, the father of three was in Montreal to prove the doctors wrong – in a sense.
At a celebration of the 75th anniversary of Technion Canada, Woo walked about in what he calls his “wearable robot,” a motorized exoskeleton invented by Amit Goffer, a graduate of Technion – Israel Institute of Technology who founded the company that makes the devices.
Unfortunately, Goffer could not take advantage of his brainchild, which is known as ReWalk. He is a quadriplegic as a result of an all-terrain vehicle accident and ReWalk users must have functioning arms and hands.
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Strapped around the hips and knees, the custom-fit device is powered by a backpack battery that allows people with spinal-cord injuries to stand, walk and even climb stairs.
The movement is controlled by a computer that’s strapped to the wrist and motion sensors that detect when the user is preparing to take a step. A brace keeps the body upright and Woo uses crutches simply for balance, not support, he said.
Woo, who was joined by his wife, Vivian, credits ReWalk with lifting him out of the deep depression he fell into after the accident, as well as improving his overall physical health after seven years of use.
Most of all, he is thrilled to have an alternative to a wheelchair.
“I’m an architect. I try to find solutions. I believed there had to be another way,” he said.
During his long recovery, he spent hours on the Internet researching developments in the treatment of paraplegia. He happened upon Argo Medical Technologies Inc., an Israeli company founded in 2001 (now called ReWalk Robotics). There were other bionic suits out there, but Woo – who knows a lot about design – “felt a glimmer of hope,” when he started learning about ReWalk.
In 2011, Woo was chosen to participate in a trial at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He admits he was fearful about whether he could do it. When he stood on his own and took his first step, Vivian Woo said that her normally reserved husband’s “face just lit up, he almost cried.” He had, at last, regained “a sense of purpose in life and my depression turned to excitement,” he said.
He trained on the ReWalk for eight months at a veterans’ hospital. (In 2014, ReWalk became the first exoskeleton system approved by the Food and Drug Administration for personal and rehabilitation use.)
In addition to giving him mobility, his overall medical status has improved.
He is now able to lift his legs while seated. He has gained muscle mass, including in his legs, and lost fat in the rest of his body. He was also able to significantly reduce his reliance on pain medications and his digestion has improved. “Our bodies are made to walk,” he said.
Of course, ReWalk is not perfect. It is quite heavy and bulky, for one thing, and prohibitively expensive – in the tens of thousands of dollars range – for most. Woo has been offering his suggestions for improving the product and plans on visiting Technion this fall for the first time.
Woo’s story was gratifying to the supporters of Technion Canada, who gathered for the celebration, which was held at the Montreal Science Centre on May 31.
My depression turned to excitement.
– Robert Woo
As noted in a promotional video that was played at the event, Technion has been the “economic backbone” of Israel, particularly in technological innovation. Some 70 per cent of Israel’s high-tech companies were started by Technion alumni.
Technion, which is located in Haifa, accepted its first students in 1924. Its first Canadian support group began in Montreal in 1943, when young engineers and architects got together to send technical books to the school, said Technion Canada Montreal chair Irwin Tauben.
Over its history, Technion Canada has raised $90 million.
One person at the event who has witnessed that history is 103-year-old Mary Katz, a faithful supporter, who waved excitedly when introduced.
Representing the young generation was Shawn Bramson, a Montrealer who graduated from Cornell Tech in Manhattan in 2016 with a master of science degree in information systems. Today, he is a product manager at Verizon in New York.
Bramson, who earned his undergraduate degree at McGill University, said he was attracted to Cornell Tech, a private engineering school, because it combined the academic reputation of Cornell University with the “chutzpah” that Technion is known to instill in it students. “It’s a go-get-it, no-nonsense approach … that encourages you to experiment, to take chances, to get messy,” he said.