Tink Wallace fell from a utility poll when she was working for Santee Cooper 18 years ago and hasn't been able to walk since then.
She's not completely paralyzed - Wallace says she retained about 30 percent feeling in her legs - but the spinal cord injury was severe enough that's she bound to a manual wheelchair for mobility.
Until recently, that is. In January, the 48-year-old North Charleston resident was the first patient in South Carolina to use a ReWalk Exoskeleton at Roper Hospital. The $80,000 machine allows her to walk around the hospital floor and up and down steps using her own legs during twice-a-week physical therapy appointments.
"They call me Robo-Tink," she said. "I call it robot legs."
The machine is powered by a black backpack that Wallace wears as she walks. Two grey supports, which bend near the knee, run down the sides of her legs and her feet rest on top of metal plates. It takes about 20 minutes for a physical therapist to strap Wallace into the Exoskeleton before she's ready to move. It takes an hour for the therapist to readjust the machine for the next patient.
"It was really a good feeling to stand up and take steps like a normal person," Wallace said on Wednesday during an appointment at the hospital. She used the Exoskeleton for the first time in early January and has tried it about a dozen times since then.
"My neck is always like this, looking up," she said from her wheelchair.
But when she used the Exoskeleton for the first time, "I actually had to look down on a couple of people. It was pretty cool. It was really a unique experience to do it for the first time."
Katherine Bennett, a physical therapist at Roper Hospital who works with Wallace and two other patients who used the new Exoskeleton, said there are physical and psychological benefits associated with the therapy. Patients use muscles that they normally don't, especially in their trunk, she said.
"Just the psychological benefit of walking - we take it for granted," Bennett said. "To see people walk again and talk to them - it's just wonderful."
The technology is not brand-new, but it is new to South Carolina, said Dr. Jeff Tubbs, a physical therapy and rehabilitation physician at Roper St. Francis Healthcare. He said Roper Hospital is the first in the state to purchase a machine, which was paid for by a grant from the South Carolina Spinal Cord Injury Research Fund. The Exoskeleton is not approved by the FDA for home use. The hospital will primarily use the machine for research, he said.
"Regardless of everything else we'd like to accomplish, just the fact of being able to stand up and look somebody eye-to-eye is just psychologically pretty, you know, it's a big event, definitely," Tubbs said.
The hospital will demonstrate how the ReWalk Exoskeleton works for the general public at 10 a.m. Friday in the Irene Dixon Auditorium at Roper Hospital. The event is free.
Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.