An 18-year-old West Roxbury teen, paralyzed from the waist down in a car crash three years ago, is walking again.
Mark Delamere Jr. is one of only 100 people worldwide and just two in Massachusetts who have the opportunity to use an exoskeleton suit that lets him get up out of his wheelchair — if only briefly for now.
Delamere was a high school freshman at Boston Latin Academy, just weeks shy of his 15th birthday, when he was riding in a car driven by a friend that crashed on the Arborway in Jamaica Plain. A spinal cord injury left him paralyzed from the waist down.
With the help of Marlboro-based ReWalk Robotics’ exoskeleton suit he’s had since August, he’s been able to stand to his full-grown height, 6-foot-3. In November, he shot his first basket since the accident.
“It was weird how much taller I was than everyone in the room, because I never knew that,” said Delamere, now a high school junior.
He is only able to use it for short periods now, because he hasn’t developed the musculature and balance to use for extended periods without assistance.
But Delamere said, “It’s just fun to walk again. I know it’s not forever but for a short amount of time, it’s fun.”
The Herald has followed Delamere’s rehabilitation over the past several months as he became the first person in Massachusetts to obtain ReWalk’s exoskeleton suit, a technology first unveiled in 2012 as a life- altering device for those with spinal cord injuries.
In 2016, 41 people, including Delamere, were reimbursed by private insurance to cover the total cost of the $77,500 equipment. That’s up from just 23 last year.
“We are trying to make this where everyone who has coverage can get a system,” said the company’s CEO Larry Jasinski, noting there are 149 applicants waiting to hear if they can take a system home. “We are making progress.”
ReWalk is currently partnering with several institutions for studies on the long-term impact this device has for its users. Delamere’s physical therapist at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital is optimistic.
“I feel like there’s so many opportunities that this device offers him,” said Andrea Coiro, Delamere’s physical therapist, noting how rare this opportunity is. “And being at a young age he’s probably going to be one of those people that discovers all of those uses.”
It took months of grueling work at Spaulding to get to the point where Delamere could take the exoskeleton suit home. He had to pass safety tests that included walking on uneven ground and “falling gracefully” should the suit fail.
To operate the machine, Delamere manuevers into the metal brace and straps into a battery operated 50-pound structure. Buttons on a watch send signals to plates in his sneakers that he’s ready to stand or walk, and with some force or a weight shift, the robot propels Mark up or forward.
At home, Delamere strapped his suit on and took a lap around his kitchen, balancing his weight on crutches.
“This is weird,” Delamere proclaimed, walking at home for the first time in three years. “Everything looks so small.”
His parents laughed as they discussed the hope they have for Delamere’s future.
His mother, Sheila Delamere, is a nurse in Boston. She hopes the movement and exercise her son gets in the exoskeleton can help him maintain bone density, regulate his digestion and keep infections at bay.
“My biggest thing is his health,” said Sheila Delamere, who vividly remembers the day the doctors said her son had osteoporosis as a result of being restricted to sitting. “The more he uses it the healthier he’ll be.”
However, ReWalk’s exoskeleton suit has some limitations. The suit is not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration to walk on stairs, although the technology exists and is currently approved for use in Europe, Jasinski told the Herald. He hopes that FDA approval will come soon.
“There’s no negatives involved; this is a great piece of equipment,” Delamere’s father, Mark Delamere Sr., said. “It’s just going to make his life better and his health better and his mental status better. So we just have to figure out how best to utilize it.”
For the younger Delamere, the journey has been “tiring physically and mentally.” But the exhaustion dissipates when he realizes how much he has overcome already.
“It’s still hard — it always will be — but not even close as hard as it used to be,” he said.
For now, the family uses the exoskeleton suit whenever they can find time between rehab, adaptive sporting games and social events.