A Canadian soldier who suffered a devastating brain injury in Afghanistan took his first few public steps today in Surrey in a customized high-tech exoskeleton.
Retired Capt. Trevor Greene had been told he would never walk again after the vicious axe attack in 2006.
But Greene – who told his kids “Daddy’s bionic” – proved he has battled back, with personal determination and help from SFU researchers.
SFU neuroscientist and professor Dr. Ryan D’Arcy asked Greene to partner with him in 2009 in a research project to explore how brain plasticity affects motor functions. Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize its neural pathways and synapses in response to different behaviours, thoughts or emotions.
The two have since met regularly for D’Arcy to collect functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of Greene’s brain, which D’Arcy uses to track how the brain rewires itself.
D’Arcy and his research team challenge the current assumptions that after a traumatic brain injury, any further recovery ceases to happen over the long-term. His team discovered physical functions can be recovered through rehabilitation even six years after an injury.
In 2014, D’Arcy called on SFU mechatronics engineer Carolyn Sparrey to see if she could customize an exoskeleton that would suit the unique requirements of the six-foot-four Greene.
Exoskeletons are typically designed for those with spinal cord injuries as an assistive technology providing lower leg movement. Sparrey notes that this is the first time exoskeleton technology has been used for a person with a brain injury.
Today, a crowd witnessed the fruits of what has come to be called Project Iron Soldier.
Greene is now able to walk upright with assistance, outfitted with a custom-made exoskeleton from Israel-based company, ReWalk. In the future he plans to walk unassisted. Ultimately, he says his goal is to make it to Everest base camp.
Capt. Trevor Greene now can walk, with assistance, in an exoskeleton. Contributed
A ReWalk company trainer has supported Greene by customizing the motorized exoskeleton so that Greene can wear the battery pack as a backpack.
“Trevor has been extremely committed to his rehabilitation program,” says D’Arcy.
Greene’s positive attitude was never more poignantly demonstrated than when he stood, using parallel bars, at his 2010 wedding to wife Deborah.
“This newest dimension in his rehabilitation, wearing exoskeletons to walk again, enables SFU faculty members to track research milestones in a real-life scenario while making a positive impact on his life,” says D’Arcy.
SFU vice-president of research Dr. Joy Johnson said the success shows why SFU puts great value on interdisciplinary research that can turn ideas into action.
“This is such a heartwarming story of courage and determination, and of the power of collaboration to push beyond seemingly impenetrable boundaries.”
During the event the Royal Canadian Legion also announced its new Veterans Village in Surrey in partnership with the City of Surrey’s Innovation Boulevard and the Institute for Healthcare Innovations on Innovation Boulevard.
The Legion, which raised funds for Greene’s exoskeleton, said the new state-of-the-art Legion Veterans Village will be a multi-use veterans facility incorporating assisted living, family space, community gardens and a therapeutic centre of excellence.
“The Legion Veterans Village will ensure the Royal Canadian Legion continues to provide vital services for Canadian Veterans,” says Inga Kruse, Executive Director, BC and Yukon Command and Foundation. “Veterans are often perceived as older, but there is a need for services for those who’ve served in recent conflicts, such as Captain Greene, and our members wanted to help in any way they could.”
The anticipated 20-storey Legion Veterans Village is expected to be built on Legion property in Central Surrey. For details visit www.innovationboulevard.ca.