Veterans walk again with help of VA, Indego

Shanna Nijem, VASNHS Physical Therapist, fits Vietnam Veteran Mark Christianson with the Indego powered exoskeleton system. (VA photograph)

Mark Christianson served more than 20 years as a U.S. Army Green Beret, retiring in 1991.

After surgery to remove a tumor from his spinal cord left him partially paralyzed, Christianson has dedicated himself to recovery, and his biggest goal is to walk again.

For several years, he has worked extensively with VA spinal doctors and physical therapists to test the newest technological devices. These efforts have taken Christianson to VA hospitals across the southwestern United States. While working with physical therapists at the VA Palo Alto, Calif., Health Care System in March, Christianson finally discovered the device that he believes meets his needs better than any previous device: the Indego powered exoskeleton system.

With only five pieces and total weight of 26 pounds, The Indego exoskeleton is a modular, lightweight and user-friendly modular system that can be easily assembled, disassembled and transported. The user also has the ability to manually program the amount of effort exerted by the powered system, allowing Veterans such as Christianson who have partial paralysis to strengthen muscles with robotic assistance. To qualify for the Indego system, a veteran must receive 30-40 hours of training with the device under the supervision of an Indego instructor and VA physical therapists. As the training is often physically-taxing for the veterans, each session is usually an hour, and only conducted twice a day at a training hub facility.

Indego Training Instructor Katie Addis has been working with Christianson since his first session in Palo Alto. “He’s positive, driven … like nothing is going to stop him,” she said. “He is just amazing. He is extremely grateful and eager and he’s doing really great. Right away he did well with the device, and in the multiple sessions, he has made significant improvements from one session to the next.”

Palo Alto VA was selected as one of the first training hubs for the Indego system. The only problem for Christianson was that he and his wife live in Las Vegas. After long trips back and forth from California, sleeping in hotels, and not being able to see his therapists at the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System that he had developed a close relationship with, Christianson suggested that the North Las Vegas VA Medical Center could become an Indego-certified facility so that he and other veterans could do their training locally. Thanks to his efforts, VASNHS’ physical therapy team has worked to make that happen.

“This changes the dynamic for Las Vegas as far as being able to treat and expand the capability of treatment for our paraplegic patients that are here,” Christianson said. “Before this point in time, for a veteran to go back and forth to the hub, the average cost to the VA was $8,000 to $10,000 per day. Here, they are close to home, they are able to have the support of family members with them, as well as the doctors and therapists who will be treating them after they receive the equipment here in Las Vegas.”

In making VASNHS a qualified training facility, Indego instructors worked alongside VASNHS physical therapists, giving them hands-on training with the device, then showing them how to properly conduct trials with veterans. “This is my first time working with the Indego system, but not my first time seeing it,” said Mark Mabida, a VASNHS physical therapist who has been working closely with Christianson with other similar devices. “We expressed a lot of interest in working with the system, but we were just waiting to get the approval for the opportunity as a spoke site.”

To understand the challenges of using the Indego for the first time and what veterans are going though, the VA physical therapists tried the device on for themselves. “These guys have been through so much, both on active duty and when they’ve come home,” Madiba said. “These injuries can be a life-changer, and instead of living out their retirement happily, the tables have been turned. But I think the possibility of actually getting up and walking again and seeing eye-to-eye with other people is such a privilege that has not existed in the past. As a therapist, it’s a great honor to be a part of that.”

“It’s a team effort,” Christianson said. “We have doctors who are spinal cord surgeons. There are the physical therapists that are specifically trained to deal with spinal cord injuries, as well as the assistants. I could not ask for better treatment and a better care team than what I have received here. It’s a breath of fresh air.”

Because of the combined efforts of Christianson, Indego instructors, and VASNHS physical ttherapists, the North Las Vegas VA Medical Center is now a certified training site for the Indego powered exoskeleton system, eliminating the need for local veterans to travel elsewhere for training.

“For me it’s a life changer,” Christianson said. “All the effort that I put in initially to make sure that the program came over and was implemented here, now I get to see the fruits of my labor lived out through my fellow veterans who are going to be here and be able to participate in this program. It’s going to change lives and it’s going to be done locally rather than off in California.

In years past, veterans living with paralysis, could only dream of walking again. With powered exoskeletons like the Indego system, the determination of Veterans like Christianson, and the dedication of trained VASNHS staff, this dream is becoming a reality right here in Southern Nevada.