An autoimmune disease left retired U.S. Army sergeant Theresa Hannigan paralyzed three years ago, but now she can stand up and walk again, as the first patient in the country to use the wearable robotic exoskeleton ReWalk at home.
Less than two weeks ago, the FDA approved the exoskeleton from Argo Medical Technologies for personal use, after first approving it to be used in rehabilitation facilities.
"There are so many things that I have missed by sitting in the wheelchair," Hannigan, 60, told CBS News. What does it mean to her to use the device? "The biggest thing...would be giving me back my independence."
The ReWalk provides powered hip and knee motion to help paralyzed patients stand up and walk. The device was developed by Dr. Amit Goffer, an Israeli scientist who became quadriplegic after an ATV accident in 1997.
Hannigan and 13 other patients have learned to use the system, studied at the James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx and at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
The benefits of the exoskeleton go beyond mobility. By enabling paralyzed patients to walk again, it also helps alleviate many related health problems.
"Almost all the subjects have lost fat," one of the project researchers, Dr. Ann M. Spungen of the Exoskeletal-Assisted Walking Program, Bronx VA Medical Center, told CBS News. "We have also had improvements in patient-reported pain and quality of life."
Inactivity from paralysis can often lead to secondary health conditions that people may not think about, such as increased risk for diseases like diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis, Spungen told CBS News in an interview earlier this year.
"All the terrible things that go wrong from a sedentary lifestyle are magnified in a person with spinal cord injury, so any activity that we can provide for them stands to reason to have benefit," she said.
The VA said it is working with ReWalk to cover the entire cost of the device for Hannigan, and plans to do so for other veterans as well. The ReWalk exoskeleton for personal use costs $69,500.
"Now that the FDA has approved the ReWalk for home use, we will be fully committed to supporting the procurement and providing the staffing support needed, now and in the future, for Ms. Hannigan and for all eligible Veterans with spinal cord injury for whom this equipment may be clinically indicated," Dr. Erik Langhoff, James J. Peters VA Medical Center Director, said in a statement.
Robert Woo, another patient who tested the device for a few months in a clinical setting, was very happy with the way the exoskeleton worked.
"I can't wait to take my family out for a walk in the park and do things that I couldn't do being in a wheelchair," Woo told CBS News in a June 27 interview.
Hannigan's partner and caregiver, Patricia Seagren, has been trained in how to assist with using the device, a requirement before a patient can take one home. She said it's overwhelming to see how happy Hannigan is doing everyday activities.
"Her dream of being able to use it in her home," Seagren said, "means everything."