Amanda Boxtel walks tall
On Feb. 27, 1992, Amanda Boxtel took a fall while skiing in Aspen, Colo., that culminated in a freak somersault. The accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. At the hospital, Boxtel's doctor told her she would never walk again.
Fast-forward to July 2010. With the help of Berkeley Bionics and its new exoskeleton called eLEGS, Boxtel proved her doctor wrong. Standing euphorically tall in her 5-foot-7 frame, she was able to walk almost naturally for the first time in 18 years on eLEGS, an artificially intelligent bionic device.
Originally from Brisbane, Australia, Boxtel was an elementary school teacher and aerobics instructor in the prime of her athletic career when the accident occurred. With great determination she decided to challenge the odds and turned "Why me?" into "Why not me?"
She returned to the world of skiing -- the sport that took away the use of her legs --in an effort to set herself free again. Boxtel became an adaptive skiing instructor, and in 1995 she co-founded Challenge Aspen, which assists adaptive athletes in reaching their athletic goals. She provided more than 200 wheelchairs for the poor in Argentina, carried the Olympic Torch via monoski in 2002 and was awarded the Harold Grinspoon Humanism Award in 2005.
Even with all her accomplishments on behalf of challenged athletes, Boxtel dreamed of walking again. "In my walking dreams, I actually imagined myself as an avatar -- and then the movie came out and blew my mind," she said from her home in Aspen. "Along with my avatar imaginings, I pictured myself walking in a robot -- seriously! I walked in a normal gait and I was assisted: powered up!"
A firm believer in the power of intention, shortly thereafter she received a phone call from Berkeley Bionics CEO Eythor Bender, offering her the opportunity to be the first female paraplegic to test eLEGS.
"Walking in eLEGS is equivalent to learning a new sport," Boxtel said. "There is a fairly steep learning curve and I equate it to learning how to ski again -- finding my center of gravity, balance. And once I knew I could manage on my own, I rocketed to freedom."
The battery-operated apparatus is comprised of steel and carbon fiber weighing roughly 45 pounds. A host of sensors monitor bodily movement while using a gesture-based human-machine interface to interpret these movements and create a natural walking stride. Patients can be trained to operate the device autonomously.
Boxtel tours with eLEGS as a spokeswoman, and recently presented at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Currently, eLEGS is undergoing investigative trials at 10 test centers across the United States and will be open to eligible patients early next year. A personal take-home model is slated for completion in 2013.
For now, we will follow the exciting and inspiring footsteps of the first real-life bionic woman as Amanda Boxtel introduces eLEGS to the world one step at a time.