Hospital event brings fun, hope to people with disabilities

SAN JOSE — Michelle Southwick inched forward on the concrete in front of the Rehabilitation Center at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center Saturday, focusing carefully on each step she took. An exoskeleton — a powered, wearable ambulatory device that allows for people with mobility disorders and limitations to experience limb movement  — hugged her body from the chest down, giving her the endurance to move forward.

Michelle Southwick tries out an exoskeleton with the help of physical therapist, Jennifer Kapetanic, at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, California, Saturday, August 12, 2017. The medical center hosted an event for people with disabilities, their families and caregivers. Adaptive equipment, such as the exoskeleton, other robotic mobilizations devices, and motor vehicles were exhibited. Other highlights included a wheelchair dance class, accessible bocce ball, and hand cycle demonstrations throughout the event. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group) 

Southwick has been in recovery mode since a tumor next to her spine hemorrhaged more than four years ago, compressing her spinal cord. Slowly, and, with the help of the exoskeleton, she’s regained strength in her muscles.

“The first time I used it, it was super frustrating,” said the 36-year-old Saratoga resident. “But as I’ve practiced with it more, it’s gotten easier and has helped me think, ‘Ok, I need to shift my weight more’ or ‘I need to stand up straighter’. It’s helped me improve how I walk.”

The exoskeleton was one of several mobility devices showcased at Valley Medical’s first “Accessibility Day.” Hosted for people with disabilities, their families and caregivers, the event featured adaptive equipment — such as the exoskeleton — robotic mobilization devices, motor vehicles and activities ranging from accessible bocce ball to hand cycle and wheelchair basketball demonstrations.

Disability affects about 56.7 million people across the United States, according to Valley Medical. Its Rehabilitation Center — one of the largest on the West Coast — aims to optimize the heath and independence of its patients, whom often face barriers that hinder them from fully participating in society. Saturday’s event highlighted an often marginalized population in need of greater resources — and more opportunities to thrive.

Ann Perkins, manager of rehab relations,  called the gathering “a celebration of life after rehabilitation.”


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