Robotic suit aids young woman paralyzed in automobile crash

Shannon Henry's sense of humor and positive outlook is inspirational

By Gus Burns

DETROIT (AP) - These are the first steps the 21-year-old woman has taken since the crash exactly three years ago. It's bittersweet.

Shannon Henry's friend, 20-year-old Kali Williams, holds her hand. They smile, cry and laugh as the clunky but precise robot suit whirs like an electric screwdriver, moving Henry's small frame forward like a lazy Transformer, according to MLive.

"She's a very strong girl," says Henry's grandfather, Jack Ferguson, 69, who watches alongside the indoor therapy track with Henry's grandmother, Patricia. "She keeps everyone else's spirits up. She's always been that way."

Henry of New Boston, who lost use of her legs and hands but retains some upper-body mobility, recently tried out REX, a robotic, hands-free exoskeleton suit at the Detroit Medical Center's Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan in Detroit.

After her first few bionic steps, Henry says she feels "strangely normal."

"It's really exciting; I'm just happy," Henry says. "It's a pleasant thing for this day, because this day is kind of melancholy usually.

"It's the anniversary of my accident."

On Nov. 18, 2012, Henry, then 18 and studying nursing, was traveling in a packed Dodge Durango with Williams and her family, Williams' parents, Krista and James Williams; brothers Caden, 7, and Jimmy, 16; and Jimmy Williams' friend, Luke Sturgill, 16. A pleasure cruise to the Bahamas was in their near future, or so they believed.

But in Fairfield County, S.C., more than halfway through the road trip to the sandy beaches of Florida where they would board, tragedy struck.

Drunken driver Ricky Deel, who was out on bond for a driving-under-the-influence offense he'd been charged with two months prior, crashed his 2000 Saturn into the travelers.

The Durango rolled multiple times and caught fire. Jimmy Williams, a popular football player at Huron High School, was ejected and killed. Henry found herself lying on the ground, feet from the wrecked SUV. She couldn't move.

Deel, then 34, has since been convicted of several crimes stemming from the crash and is serving a 20-year prison sentence.

Henry's grandparents marvel at their upbeat granddaughter after what she's been through and what she faces.

"She told me at the hospital (after the crash), 'I will walk,'" says Patricia Ferguson. "She's been tough forever."

Henry's humor pierces and lightens her heavy reality. Her grandmother recalls a story from an Ann Arbor hospital days after the crash. Henry was coming to grips with her paralysis.

Nurses were trying to move Henry. At the time she had essentially no feeling in her body, so what she said next surprised everyone.

"They went to pick her up and she goes, 'Ow, ow, ow," Patricia Ferguson says smiling. "She looks at me and winks. I go, 'You're such a brat.'"

Henry's comedic relief continues. While two physical therapists were strapping Henry into the lumbering bionic suit, her hand rested near a joystick and some buttons.

"Should I push this," she asked in deadpan tone while a physical therapist was bent down by Henry's silver Puma sneakers strapping her in. "No, no," the riled therapist said, then realized it was just another of Henry's jokes.

Henry has a full-time caretaker but continues to gain mobility and learn how to do little things most take for granted.

When asked about her hobbies and what she does for fun, Henry's answer is hardly unusual.

"I like baking," she says. "I like swimming, just hanging out with my friends and my family, NetfIix. I do pottery. I like to paint, stuff like that."

Henry spends hours each week at the rehabilitation center in Detroit and will now be spending more time walking in the REX suit. Before REX, the only time Henry had a chance to be fully upright was in a swimming pool.

The physical therapy room on the second floor at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan in Detroit is an office of sorts for Henry and those like her with neurological issues that restrict mobility.

It's bustling with physical therapists and hopeful patients.

Beth Daly of Windsor, Ontario, a former long-distance runner who says she flew off her thoroughbred, Rupert, and whacked her back against a tree, spends about nine hours a week here.

"I love these people," she says. "They're like family."

Daly practices walking in another bionic suit similar to Henry's. It's called Esko, designed for use by patients who've lost lower-body mobility. Therapists program the stride height and distance to fit the patient.

"It's certainly improved my gait," Daly says. "The things you don't think about are the tiniest little motions in your step, and so my step has improved dramatically.

"But I'll take Shingo over the robot any day."

Shingo is her physical therapist.

There's also Mark Appleton, 34, of Westland. He lost his ability to walk when he was 18, after falling asleep and crashing on a highway in Metro Detroit. He recently completed his first wheelchair marathon and also plays basketball.

Appleton has the honor of being one of the first patients to use ReWalk, a take-home bionic exoskeleton that costs about $75,000, according to Senior Physical Therapist Diane Patzer.

Appleton's insurer approved him for a 90-day trial. He's still learning the controls and wants to make sure it's something he can and would use regularly should he or his insurer make the investment.

Rickki Boonner-Fuggs, 55, of Taylor, a married mother of two, became paralyzed in September 2012 after being rear-ended by a rented charter bus.

She practices walking in the same suit used by Henry.

"Besides the personal side of it, of being able to walk for the first time in three years, I feel that when I get up in this machine, it automatically makes you engage. It makes you stand straight ... it makes you do the things that sitting in a chair that you don't have to do.

"When you get up in this, you instantly have to perform with it."

With their robotic suits and daily exercises, Henry, Appleton, Bonner-Fuggs, Daly and others on the second floor of the rehabilitation center move forward with their lives.

Just the motion of walking offers hope.

"Let me tell you something about spinal cord injuries," Daly says. "Nobody will tell you anything, nobody expects anything.

"I call it the snowflake injury, because there are no two that are alike."

Across the room, Henry is still propped up and getting a feel for her robot suit.

"I bet it feels good," her grandfather says, "just standing again."

Henry's hope lies in little achievements.

"I just want to be as independent as possible. ... that would be really nice," she says. Seeming to think of the possibilities, she adds, "washing dishes."

Published: Tue, Dec 01, 2015


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