After you read this first sentence, look up from your newspaper, computer, phone or tablet and slowly stand up. Feel your hips settle into your lower body, feel the sensory pathways of the central nervous system convey sensations of touch and vibration.
More than five million people in the United States do not have this luxury of mobility because they are paralyzed. And that number is growing every year, according to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.
One of these paralyzed individuals is Basalt resident Amanda Boxtel, founder and executive director of Bridging Bionics, a nonprofit organization that provides access to bionic rehabilitation technology for all individuals challenged with neurological mobility impairments.
“I have been paralyzed for 27 1/2 years,” explains Boxtel. “I found that as I aged in my paralyzed body I needed to maintain my wellness, my range of motion and my flexibility. I created Bridging Bionics out of necessity.”
Boxtel, like all paralyzed people, needed to get creative on how she could keep her body supple and alive so that she wouldn’t be at risk of sustaining secondary complications associated with paralysis such as atrophy, increased urinary tract infections, poor circulation, pressure wounds and all of the other inherent complications that can occur as a result of just sitting and not maintaining mobility.
“I discovered that destiny waits for no woman or man, and it was up to me and me only to keep my body alive,” notes Boxtel. “We need to maintain our heart rate for our cardio. We need to maintain our balance, our joint flexibility and alignment and our range of motion. All of these factors are important for wellness.”
Boxtel began researching what advanced technologies were available to help her fight those inherent complications and regain mobility. She learned about a German whole body vibration system, with side-alternating vibration technology, that became a game changer for her.
Then a phone call became another game changer.
A friend of a friend called her, and she was invited to go to California and test pilot the first prototype of a bionic exoskeleton suit named eLegs from Berkeley Bionics, a company in Richmond, Calif., that is now called Ekso Bionics. And Boxtel walked.
“I took my first natural steps in 18 years of paralysis with a bent knee striking my heel on the ground,” says Boxtel, with emotion. “I could determine my own steps with someone at my back guiding as a safety, and I was five foot seven again. I went back to the hotel room and I cried hard. Everything I dreamed for, everything I wished for, burgeoned to life in one powerful upright moment.”
Boxtel found her first experience with the exoskeleton suit powerful and transformative. Having previously co-founded the acclaimed nonprofit Challenge Aspen, Boxtel founded a new venture, Bridging Bionics, which is based in Basalt.
Technology and that next step
Bridging Bionics uses advanced technologies to optimize function and improve life for all individuals with mobility impairments. Clients receive physical therapy, advanced technologies including the Galileo side-alternating whole-body vibration system and a range of bionic exoskeleton suits for either low cost or no cost.
Amanda and her small team of physical therapists at Bridging Bionics have 41 clients, all but one from the Roaring Fork Valley.
“There’s evidence that pure walking under pure robotic assist alone is beneficial to the muscles and to the body,” explains Boxtel. “It helps with increased circulation to the legs, to rewire those neural pathways and engage the muscles. Now, the technology is smart enough that someone with a muscle weakness or a neurological condition that needs assistance can use our wearable robot that will read our user’s input and automatically gauge how much assist they need to help that person complete a step.”
The technology and the exoskeleton suits are not cheap. Bridging Bionics has three suits and they range in cost from $175,000 to $225,000.
The Bridging Bionics rehabilitation program has four parts to it:
- Whole-body vibration utilizing the Galileo technology (something not all of the top rehab centers in the country have);
- Use of the bionic exoskeletons;
- Physical therapy that can encompass pool therapy, dry needling or regular physical therapy;
- A training component developed by local physical therapist and personal trainer Bill Fabrocini.
“The ideal goal for our program, and we’re not there yet, is that every client has access gifted to them for two physical therapy sessions and one training session a week,” explains Boxtel.
Bridging Bionics currently has three physical therapists and one trainer working part time on staff.
Instead of working in a hospital environment, Bridging Bionics is based locally in two health clubs, the Snowmass Club in Snowmass Village and Midland Fitness in Glenwood Springs.
“I really want to shine the light on the Snowmass Club,” notes Boxtel. “They have expanded our footprint so that we have room to maneuver electric wheelchairs when our clients come in for therapy. We have a new $6,500 pool lift that one of our donors gifted to the club, and we are really working in partnership with them. Midland Fitness helps our program target downvalley clients and along the I-70 corridor.”
Boxtel’s work with Bridging Bionics is attracting national acclaim. Last year, she was voted one of CNN's Top Ten Heroes.
“It’s not that I don’t feel worthy,” says Boxtel with increasing emotion. “It’s just so humbling. These are everyday people; none of us are put on a pedestal. When I think of a hero, I think of the hero in you or the hero in our clients who show up every day despite their mobility challenges. If they are prepared to make the effort, we are going to meet them there. That’s a hero.”
But for many, Boxtel remains our Valley's local hero. When Glenwood Springs resident Kayla Sarmiento and her twin sister Samantha were seriously injured in a 2018 car crash, Kayla sustained a spinal cord injury that paralyzed her. After Boxtel learned of Kayla’s injury, she tracked her down through Facebook and invited her to Bridging Bionics. Kayla has been able to make progress through her physical therapy and training and continues to improve.
You will find Amanda Boxtel at local events or roaming around Basalt with her golden retriever service dog, Benson. For more information on the programs of Bridging Bionics or to contribute to their nonprofit organization call 970-379-0721 or contact Boxtel at bridgingbionics.org.