SAN JOSE -- With each halting stride, Richard Torres stepped out of his injured past and into the future.

A volunteer in a three-day study of a new robotic suit called an "exoskeleton" at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, the 51-year-old truck driver aims to recover from a major stroke -- and contribute to medical research.

The device helps patients relearn the proper gait, weight shifts and balance of walking. Battery-powered motors drive the legs, controlled by a computer strapped onto the patient's back.

It is the latest innovation in the fast-moving field of robot-based rehabilitation technology, spurred by advances such as smaller batteries, lighter and more durable materials, and adjustable, easily controlled computer software.

"It may help him in the long run," his wife, Cindy, 44, said last week as she watched his slow trek around the hospital's rehabilitation center.

"Even more, down the road, it is helping others," she said. "That's how medicine learns."

Developer Ekso Bionics of Richmond, founded by engineers at UC Berkeley, takes its name from the word exoskeleton, meaning a skeleton outside the body.

It is one of several companies working on wearable robots designed to help disabled people. Israel-based Argo Medical Technologies makes a robotic suit called ReWalk to help paraplegics walk again. Parker Hannifin of Cleveland has a device called Indego. Rex Bionics of New Zealand markets a pair of robotic legs.


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What's different about the company's newest $150,000 device is its "variable assist" feature, which automatically or manually fine-tunes its support to match a person's needs -- important for recovering stroke patients who have varying disabilities that change over time.

The San Jose hospital volunteered to test the device because "we want to give more people more functionality and greater independence," said Joy Alexiou, spokeswoman for Valley Medical Center, one of five hospitals across the country testing the device.

Richard Torres of Livingston uses "Ekso," a robotic exoskeleton device, at the Rehabilitation Center at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San
Richard Torres of Livingston uses "Ekso," a robotic exoskeleton device, at the Rehabilitation Center at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose,, July 17, 2013. (Patrick Tehan, Bay Area News Group)

After observing patients, Ekso clinical director Darrell Musick will go back to the lab to improve the device. Until the research is complete, the "variable assist" is still just a prototype -- a work in progress -- not available to the public.

A hardworking man who supported his family with a career hauling hay, Richard Torres was hale and hearty until June 4.

That morning started like any other. He ate breakfast and showered at his home in the small Central Valley town of Livingston. While dressing, his legs inexplicably went limp. His speech slurred. Cindy Torres immediately called for emergency medical help.

Doctors diagnosed a stroke due to a brain hemorrhage -- a burst artery in the brain causing bleeding that kills brain cells. Richard Torres survived, but he is unable to walk, write or speak clearly.

But he can express joy, and in his first upright moment in the exoskeleton, "there was a big huge grin, a giggle," Cindy Torres said. "He had never stood up straight since his injury."

Focused rehabilitation immediately after injury is essential to long-term recovery, said Stephanie Kolakowsky-Hayner, director of Rehabilitation Research at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. This helps the brain relearn what is lost.

An exoskeleton could help patients learn a more natural gait pattern and walking style, she said.

It will take analysis of extensive data to prove it actually helps stroke victims recover.

But Torres showed progress, taking 543 steps one day last week, up from 340 two days before. And his gait improved, with his weak right foot supporting more weight.

"How much improvement would have happened anyway? We don't know," Musick said.

Like Torres, the research will proceed cautiously: one step at a time.

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.

Online EXTRA

See a slideshow of stroke patient Richard Torres using a exoskeleton device to help him walk at www.mercurynews.com/extra.