Exo suits: The next step in human evolution?

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In the space of four years, Rajiv Odhavji has gone from climbing mountains to overcoming obstacles of an entirely different kind.

The Sydney resident’s life was turned upside down in 2017, when he was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis (MS).

“I noticed it when I couldn’t really walk properly one day, I felt like I had no brakes,” Rajiv said.

“What I have is one of the rarer types of MS. I have over 120 lesions on my brain and eight on my spine. Basically, I have a really crappy type of MS.”

As part of his physio, Rajiv has been working with the team at Royal Rehab and one of their specialist pieces of equipment – the EksoNR robotic exoskeleton.

According to Rajiv, the exoskeleton is “really, really, really, freakin’ cool”.

“There’s a video of me on my Instagram in the Ekso, with the 'Terminator' music playing,” he said, laughing.

“You feel like an android, like this is the next step in human evolution.

“What’s so amazing about this is that I can start the movement in the Ekso myself. It’s up to me to begin and help my legs along.

“And each time, it’s tailored to your specific movement, so it tells you if your leg isn’t lifting high enough for example.”

The EksoNR robotic exoskeleton is set up to meet patients' specific needs

Royal Rehab physiotherapist Jason Redhead said the EksoNR was next-level technology.

“It’s pretty cool, there’s no doubt,” he said.

“Exoskeleton technology has been around in the past, but it was quite passive. This is an entire neuro-rehab package.

“Whatever the impairment or weakness that people are overcoming, it gives patients the ability to train and focus specifically on whatever that may be.

“As a clinician, it gives us live feedback, there’s a touchscreen and it just has so many features.

“It’s going to change the way we do physio. It’s not going to do us out of a job, but it will make us better clinicians.”

Rajiv said he could already see changes in his condition after only five sessions with the Ekso.

“The Ekso encourages the neuroplasticity in your brain to rewire itself – you’re basically hoodwinking your brain, and if you do it enough you will see tangible improvements,” he said.

“It encourages your legs to strengthen and that means I’m capable of doing physio that I wasn’t able to do before. It’s got me back on my feet – I used to be a rock climber, I climbed Mt Fuji six years ago.”

Jason said it was “amazing” to see his patient’s progress.

“We know about the importance of robotics tech combined with standard treatment, and we’ve taken that research and tech on board and we’re using it here at Royal Rehab,” he said.

“We are currently the only facility in Australia to have this technology. We have two EksoNR on-site, so to access it people have to come to Royal Rehab. 

“Taking referrals, I hear from so many people in other states wanting to use this treatment, so it’s limited by a hospital’s ability to buy this equipment.”

Rajiv hopes the exo suits will become more widely available

Without private hospitals, Rajiv said he would never have been able to use the EksoNR.

“It’s crazy there aren’t more of these machines in Australia,” he said.

“There’s 300 clinics in the US where you can access this technology, but here there’s only one. And you know, without private hospitals, I wouldn’t be able to access this tech at all.”

Rajiv is coping with his MS and talking about his rehab journey on his podcast, called Multiple Stories.

“With the podcast, I started it because I wanted to help other people,” he said.

“I know what that fear is like when you’re diagnosed – to go home and just feel your whole world vibrating around you. 

“If people listen to me and are inspired, or even if they think ‘wow this guy is way worse than me’, then if that makes them feel better, that’s great.

“Looking back at my symptoms, I’ve probably had MS since around 2005. And if I can climb Mt Fuji when I had this disease and didn’t even know it, and now to talk about it with other people, I just hope that’s inspiring.”

Read more: Robot suit helps Mum, 77, 'regain her life'

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