Monday was a big day for Alex McEwan. It was the day of his graduation from Bowness High School in Calgary. But it was also the first time he walked in public since he was paralyzed more than two years ago.
In January 2016, Alex broke three vertebrae in a tobogganing accident. He became paralyzed from the chest down and has been in a wheelchair ever since. However, with help from a robotic exoskeleton suit, Alex was able to walk across the graduation stage in front of his family and classmates.
“He uses forearm crutches and looks for targets that we set laterally and forward,” explains Kyle McIntosh, a neurological-physiotherapist who helped prepare Alex to use the suit. “Once he hits those targets on one side, the machine takes a step for him. Then he shifts his weight and moves his crutches on the other side and basically continues the process.”
It took a good amount of work for Alex to get comfortable using the suit since he lacks strength in his core. But the applause he received when he shocked everyone in attendance by walking made all that work well worth it.
“I had a hard time keeping it together but thankfully I was able to focus on the walking and that kept me composed,” says Alex. “It was unreal. I will never get a feeling like that again in my life.”
Alex’s family had seen him use the exoskeleton before, but they still got emotional watching him use it to walk across the graduation stage.
“I’m waiting for wheelchair and I see him walking and now I’m bawling,” recalls Rita Efthimiou, Alex’s grandmother. “I say to the people beside me, ‘That’s my grandson.’ It was very emotional.”
After all the time he spent in the hospital after the accident, it appeared he may need an extra year before graduating. But Alex managed to make up for the lost time and graduate alongside his friends and classmates.
“It was the most emotional moment of my life,” said Alex’s mom, Stella. “That was more emotional than when he was born.”
Alex plans to pursue higher education and is hoping to one day become a teacher.