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'Bionic' suit helps paralyzed patients walk again

A special “bionic’ suit is changing the lives of patients who are suffering from partial paralysis and unable to walk.

Brian Flanagan, 26, was in an ATV accident two years ago that left him with a severed spinal cord. Within days, surgeons told him he would probably never walk again.

Video: After an ATV accident left him with a severed spinal cord, Brian Flanagan, 26, is able to walk again with the help of a ReWalk, a battery-powered walker that helps push his hips and legs forward. NBC’s Tom Costello reports.

"Being in a bed for six months leaves a lot of time to think so I spent a lot of time at first denying it, hoping it would all go away,” Flanagan told TODAY’s Tom Costello. An avid outdoorsman, Flanagan wanted his life back. Paralysis, however, rarely goes away. 

Flanagan is now able to stand and push his hips and legs forward using a motorized system called “ReWalk,” which features computers and motion sensors to help paralyzed patients move. Forearm crutches are needed for balance.  

As Flanagan works with a physical therapist at the University of Maryland Rehabilitation Center — one of 14 hospitals across the country using the robotic exoskeleton — he may eventually be able to not only stand and move, but climb up and down stairs.

His reaction to his first chance to walk again?

"It's great!” says Flanagan.”I was 6'4" so I'm used to looking down on people and staring over the crowd. So, being in a wheel chair is a lot different...looking up to everybody."

The ReWalk body suit was developed by Israeli company Argo Medical Technologies. In 2012, paralyzed athlete Claire Lomas completed the London marathon in 16 days using ReWalk bionic legs. 

About 273,000 people in the United States were living with spinal cord injuries in 2013, according to the most recent data from the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center at the University of Alabama. Over 80 percent of people with spinal cord injuries are men, with nearly half of the injuries occurring between the ages of 16 and 30.

Most of those injured are men, and many are between ages 16 and 30. Motor vehicle accidents and falls are the most common causes of spinal cord injury.

"Psychologically, just to get up again is a big deal for people who've suffered a spinal cord injury," says Dr. Peter Gorman, University of Maryland Rehab and Ortho Institute.

Being able to stand and move also benefits internal organs, digestion and muscle tone.

The ReWalk robotic walking system is not the only technology giving hope to people with spinal cord injuries. In April, researchers announced astonishing results from an implanted electrical stimulator retraining patients’ spinal nerves to work with the brain again, despite terrible damage. ReWalk, however, does not use electrical impulses and nothing is connected to a patient’s nerves or muscles.

The promise of being able to walk again is “paramount” for paralyzed patients, says Jerry Morgan, physical therapist at the University of Maryland Rehab and Ortho Institute.

“For people like Brian who’ve suffered this terrible injury, hope is important,” says Morgan.