FootPrints wants to bring bionic suit to Canada

Ashley Thompson
Published on February 27, 2013

Jennifer Collins lights up when she talks about the first time she was able to pat her cat, without help, since her accident.

Collins is lying flat out on a padded exercise table in FootPrints SCI Recovery Inc.’s gym in Windsor, with her knees slightly elevated by a wedge-shaped cushion. Her hands are strapped to a metal bar FootPrint’s trainer Ted Moore has her holding above her head while he massages the muscles in her arms. The exercise is meant to build strength, and stimulate a response in Collins’ brain that may, one day, help her regain the use of both arms.

So far, Collins is happy to report, the exercise-based approach is working.

“The strength has increased dramatically. It’s like night and day,” she says, holding the bar on her own.

Before Collins, an Indian Path, Lunenburg Countyresident started travelling toFootPrints for bi-weekly workouts in July, she was not able to stretch one leg out straight, hold her body weight for several seconds to a little more than a minute in a Total Gym, or lift her arm.

For four years, she searched for a recovery facility with a vision that aligned with her primary goal: to regain enough function in her arms to feed herself and operate a wheelchair on her own. The mother of three grown boys sees these goals as her first steps in regaining independence since the day she was “carrying on with her son,” fell, and hit her head and neck on ceramic floor tile.

“Snap!” the lively 53-year-old says, retelling the story she’s told many times.

Collins, a C4/5 quadriplegic, says the rehabilitative therapy she received through the health care system was centred on preparing her for life in a wheelchair.

“What they train you to do is they train you to be a quad. They don’t train you to become anything else,” she said.

“I didn’t take that for an answer — not at all.”

About a month before she discovered FootPrints, Collins spent $10,000 to go to a spinal cord injury recovery centre in Florida for five days.

“The Florida centre kind of led us to believe she’d get something back in a week,” said Collins’ caregiver and best friend, Roxanne Freeman.

“I think this is definitely a better approach to regaining the abilities.”

Collins pays for the recovery services offered at FootPrints out of her own pocket. She says she feels it is an essential service that should be covered through health insurance.

“The government supports alcoholics and drug addicts when they have a choice. It’s not a disease; it’s a choice. With us, it’s not a choice. We have to deal with it and I only think it’s fair that they support us a little more, put a little more money into programs like this.”

FootPrints founder Marlene Belliveau opened the non-profit recovery centre, the first of its kind in Eastern Canada, to give people living with spinal cord injuries a place to find inspiration, work toward their full potential, improve their overall health and, possibly, regain motor function through completing consistent exercise routines with assistance from certified trainers.

Belliveau’s desire to instil hope in people with spinal cord injuries stems from hardships her own family has endured. Her teenage daughter, Amy Paradis, was paralyzed in a car accident Dec. 26, 2009.Paradis, a C6/7 quadriplegic whose paralysis has moved down past her hips with consistent exercise, is both a client and employee at FootPrints.

Belliveau is committed to keeping FootPrints on the cutting edge of post-rehab care. She is in the midst of seeking sponsorship to make FootPrints the first centre in Canada to acquire the Ekso — a state-of-the-art bionic exoskeleton the California-basedEkso Bionics designed to get people living with paralysis standing and walking again.

“It’s a piece of equipment that will actually hold the person paralyzed in an upright position in which the organs and everything are in a normal position, your circulation is functioning properly and it gives the proper movement,” Belliveau said.

She says the bionic suit would combat such health complications as dysreflexia, bladder infections and breathing problems, and minimize hospital visits by strengthening organs and muscles, improving circulation and heart functioning and lifting the spirits — among other things — of FootPrints’ clients.

“My interest in acquiring it is for the clients, to teach them how to walk again — albeit differently, but it will teach them how to walk again.”

Belliveau says she has to raise about $160,000 in the coming months to have the exoskeleton at her Gerrish Street facility by June.

“I think it’s a wonderful piece of equipment. It’s time that we have something like this in Canada.”

Collins will be waiting to give the bionic suit a try.

Belliveau says she looks at clients like Collins, who couldn’t wait to tell her she regained the ability to pat her cat, and Paradis, who can now bench press in the Total Gym, and she knows exactly why she built a not-for-profit spinal cord injury recovery facility from the ground up.

“Everyday there is progress. Everyday there is something positive,” she said, smiling at Collins.

“When I see someone make progress — that’s my pay right there.”