Aspiring Paralympian leaps into recovery with robot suit

08 May 2016 - 02:00 By Claire Keeton

When he was 16, Brandon Beack could not turn over in bed or use his hands. But Beack, who had been on track to represent South Africa at the Olympics in gymnastics, could not accept he would be quadriplegic forever."From the moment the doctors told me, I thought: 'No, not in a million years!' I had learnt from gymnastics never to give up," said Beack, who broke his neck while dismounting from the parallel bars during a training session.On Friday, the 20-year-old athlete, who has regained the use of his upper body, broke the 100m record for Africa and South Africa, finishing the race (in which he was the only competitor in his class), in 19.35sec. At the same meeting, the South African Open Championships in Bloemfontein, he set a new national shotput record in his category. In March he won gold medals for the wheelchair sprint, shotput and discus para-events.We meet at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa in Newlands, Cape Town, and, as he stretches in his wheelchair while he talks, his muscles ripple. With a golden smile he describes playing the Sultans of Swing on his electric bass guitar for the first time in years last month.story_article_left1No glimmer of self-pity.His spinal cord was severely compressed, although intact, after his accident, but it seems that iron-willed discipline and hope have driven his recovery as much as the time and money spent on his rehabilitation.Beack also got access to innovative therapies - such as an upright robotic suit whose motor mechanically moves his legs forward as if he were walking.The exoskeleton will not replace his wheelchair: it is a therapeutic device housed at the institute.Beack himself contributes about 30% to the forward steps by shifting the weight of his torso. And he is strong. He can benchpress 100kg - yet he couldn't lift a jellybean after his accident."It was on August 22 2012. I was training for the Western Province championships. I did a back somersault to dismount. I missed the safety mats, split my head and broke my neck," says Beack.His father, Mark, who is a trained lifesaver, protected his son's spine from further damage while the teenager lay bleeding on the floor.Surgeons at the UCT Private Academic Hospital, at Groote Schuur Hospital, operated on Beack five days later. He was then transferred to Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital's rehabilitation unit for eight weeks."At first I couldn't use my hands, feed myself, wash myself, dress, sit upright or push a wheelchair," Beack said. His father, in effect his right-hand man, as well as his mother and carers, assisted him in that first year."Brandon made us promise that we would not let him sit around and watch TV, so we assembled a team of therapists," said his father. They sold their house in Sea Point to fund his healing.When sensation returned to his arms, Beack resumed fitness training with ferocity, using machines such as hand cycles. PlayStation and building Warhammer models were rehab for his thumbs and fingers.Mark Beack said: "We were looking for alternatives to the basic run-of-the-mill rehab experience." Most spinal cord recovery occurs within the first 24 months, so Beack went to the Shepherd Centre for spinal cord and brain injury in Atlanta, in the US, in December 2013."I recovered at a faster rate in those six weeks than in the previous year," he said. "Firstly it was the mindset: treating everyone equally and learning from everyone. Everything felt so normal. There were no moments of 'Ag, shame.'"Also, we had the intense out-of-the-box therapy and played sports like basketball. The access to equipment was much greater," he said.That's where he first saw the robotic exoskeleton and the Walking with Brandon Foundation raised funds to import one. In May 2014, the first exoskeleton, worth about R1-million, reached Cape Town.Beack "walked" in it daily for a month while a technician trained the biokineticists."Walking in it, I noticed a lot of improvements in my health and physical comfort. I felt like it rebooted my system completely and I am still gaining function," he said.Biokineticist Rob Evans operates the suit for Beack, acting as his "spotter". Astounded by his progress, Evans suggested that Beack start training again for competitive sport.Initially, the young man could not throw a shotput, but he eventually succeeded."After that I tried out for wheelchair racing, which is more explosive and exciting."He dreams of qualifying for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in September but has no track record - only his recent victories to consider.Beack said: "My life was so focused in a certain direction and then I hit a curve in the road. Funnily enough, I feel more focused now."His days start at 6am. He trains, gives motivational talks and makes time for friends. He had a girlfriend for about six months but it ended last June."I would love to be in a relationship but our lives would have to overlap, for example training together, or having a hot neighbour like in the movies."Beack's own life is not far from a movie script - a clichéd tale of triumph over despair - yet he is anything but a stereotype. The boy whose nickname was Superman before the fall has adopted the mantra of Superman actor Christopher Reeve, who became quadriplegic: "Once you choose hope, anything is possible.""My sport has brought me full circle," he said. "I thought that I had lost everything, but I have gained everything and more back, in a different way."I am pushing as hard as I can for this Paralympics, as I might be walking by 2020."  Robot suit helps in rehab A Scientific study to compare the benefits of walking over the ground in a robotic suit with those of exercise-based rehabilitation for spinal cord patients is being established in Cape Town.University of Cape Town researcher Dr Yumna Albertus, based at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, will be heading the research team to find out more about the efficacy of the GT exoskeleton from Ekso Bionics.story_article_right2The research will measure possible changes in muscle mass, bone density and body fat and track the psychological state of patients.South Africa's rate of spinal-cord injuries is at 76 people per million, which is roughly three times higher than the global average of 24 per million. Violence, including gunshot and stab wounds, and road accidents contribute to this problem.Albertus said: "If patients are lucky, they get up to eight weeks of rehabilitation in private hospitals and when they leave there is [little] out there to maintain or improve their function."An expert in neuromuscular patterns, Albertus hopes that innovative technologies such as the exoskeleton will expand patients' rehabilitation options.Muscles are electrically stimulated with every footstep in the suit.Albertus said: "This is not a suit to tell individuals they will walk again. It is a tool for rehabilitation."Paraplegic athlete Brandon Beack said: "My blood pressure improved dramatically walking in it, swelling went down, I had increased bowel and bladder function and not one bladder infection."The Walking with Brandon Foundation is an NGO that raises money for patients from townships with spinal cord injuries. It has a fundraising golf day on May 20

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day, Financial Mail or Rand Daily Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.