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Like any active 30-year-old, Marine Capt. Derek Herrera is making the most of his life, serving on active duty in a special operations unit, racing in 10Ks and triathlons, earning his MBA and overseeing renovations of a house he just bought in San Clemente, California.
At least three times a week, he also likes to do something truly prodigious: Take a walk.
Herrera has been paralyzed from the chest down since June 2012, when he was felled by a sniper's bullet while leading a team in southern Afghanistan.
But several times a week, the former lacrosse player and 2006 Naval Academy graduate wheels himself to the physical therapy room at 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion and straps on a set of robotic legs, an exoskeleton that allows him to stand, stroll and simply speak to others from the perspective he enjoyed for 28 years — 6 feet, 2 inches.
"Being able to look at a person at eye level is awesome. It's not something you'd probably think about unless you spent most of your time sitting," Herrera said.
In June, the Food and Drug Administration cleared the medical device he uses, a ReWalk "wearable robotic exoskeleton," for home utilization, paving the way for Herrera and others to walk in places other than medical facilities.
The technology has the potential to benefit those with spinal cord injuries, by not only allowing them to walk but by bolstering their health, say researchers, developers and users.
"When you are paralyzed, there's the injury but there's also secondary and tertiary complications from sitting in a wheelchair all day — circulation issues, loss of muscle mass, bone density," Herrera said. "Your body is not designed to sit. It's designed to stand and move."
Invented in Israel by Argo Medical Technologies Inc., (now ReWalk Robotics), the ReWalk consists of motorized leg braces, a backpack containing a computer and several lithium ion batteries, a wrist-mounted controller and crutches for balance.
The wearer can put on the prosthetic device and use it to stand, walk and sit. To move, the user leans forward, a motion that activates an accelerometer and instructs the legs to step.
Top speed: 1.3 mph.
"The person walks the system, the system does not walk them. The users are in control — when they want to sit, they sit; when then want to stand and walk, they do so," said inventor Dr. Amit Goffer, who developed the system after becoming a quadriplegic in an ATV accident in 1997.
The ReWalk system for medical use has been around since 2011. The personal, custom version for home use was first approved for use overseas in 2012.
Developers hope the FDA's decision to allow the device to be marketed to individuals will pave the way for insurers to cover the pricey prosthetic, which costs $69,500.
That's much more than the most advanced wheelchair but about the same price as the most technologically advanced arm prosthetic, the DEKA arm developed under contract by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Company officials say they have data that shows the potential medical benefits could offset the cost by preventing hospitalizations and reducing medications for spinal cord-injury-related health issues.
With the device just recently approved, Defense Health Agency officials have yet to deal with whether Tricare will cover it.
Army Maj. Gen. Richard Thomas, DHA director of health care operations, said he could not comment specifically on ReWalk, but added that DHA considers all promising technologies, taking into consideration research and testing.
"You've got to have disciplined scientific rigor behind these technologies to show where they fit and what requirements they can address in your patients. It's a process," Thomas said.
The Veterans Health Administration has overseen a research project on ReWalk devices since 2011. Researchers at the James J. Peters Veterans Affairs Medical Center in New York have studied the health effects of ReWalk use by paraplegics on overall health, tissue mass and bone density.
Nearly a dozen veterans have participated, including two who used the robo-walkers in a New Jersey road race in 2012.
Herrera feels blessed to have his ReWalk, funded with assistance from the MARSOC Foundation, a nonprofit that helps Marine Corps Special Operations Command troops and family members.
His wife Maura has taken a two-day course to assist him while he uses it, a spotter of sorts required as part of the FDA marketing approval decision.
And while Herrera faces a long road to reach a point where he could nearly completely ditch his wheelchair — a feat he says has been accomplished by only a handful of the 400 paraplegics with current access to the ReWalk — he says he's looking forward to trying.
"I'm pretty fast in my wheelchair, way quicker than walking pace. But I would take walking any day over being in a chair," Herrera said.