Sisters man stands tall - with tech help
Last updated 3/28/2023 at 1:54pm
Erik Himbert has lived in his Sisters home for over 10 years but never walked the scant 100 yards to his mailbox. It wasn’t for lack of desire. Yet late last week, servo motors hummed and Himbert — a paraplegic —was able at last to walk the short distance to his mailbox, a journey that invariably elicited excited responses from the neighbors. A woman who Himbert has known for years stood in her yard with her mouth agape and exclaimed, “I never knew you were so tall!”
Himbert returned her comment with a broad smile, and a simple, “Yep!”
It was 2009 when Himbert’s life took an unexpected turn for the worst. It only took a few seconds for this catastrophic life event to unfold. Himbert recounted that evening, snowboarding in Wildwood, California.
“I hit the jump at full speed and thought it was powder, and it turned out to be ice. My board shot out from underneath me. I fell headfirst about 20 feet or so, and landed on my back, and that was it. When I saw my friend’s face… They came up to me and touched my legs and I couldn’t feel my legs, and that’s when I knew it was pretty bad.
“I was in the ICU for two weeks, on morphine, tubes coming out of everywhere. I didn’t know what my life was going to look like, or if I was even going to
After months in the hospital, and in a full back brace, Himbert was transferred to a friend’s house. All he could do was lie in bed and listen to the activity outside his window.
“Right outside my window was the backyard and the pool, and I’m just hearing the kids out there playing… normally I would be out there with them but I’m stuck in the bed in the back brace and unable to move,”
“I would never say that I was fully depressed… but it just really hit me at that point. I really felt impressed upon by God to stop thinking about what I can’t do and start thinking about what I can do.”
There would be many challenges for Himbert in the years since his accident. Understanding how paraplegia degrades the body through atrophy, and often shortens life-expectancy, was a key motivator for Himbert to do the truly hard work of staying active while he hung on to hope.
Sitting all the time poses significant challenges.
“We’re not meant to be sitting,” he said. “Blood flow is a big one, bone density is huge, not being weight bearing, being prone to bacterial infections, excess fluid. It’s all super painful.”
Despite his optimism and hard work, Himbert could sense his body slowly degrading.
“Over the years, nothing has helped. I’ve made my own standing frame. I have leg braces, and stretch out every morning. I’m seeing a massage therapist. I was always just kind of maintaining… and slowly getting worse,” he said.
As Himbert continued in his vocation and passion as a music teacher and worship leader, friends and family constantly sent him articles and links on new medical technologies to help in living with his paraplegia. One of those links, for a company called ReWalk Robotics, really grabbed his attention. He saw videos of paraplegics — like himself — standing upright and walking with the assistance of an exoskeleton rig, worn like a set of mechanical pants that propelled the wearer forward.
There would be many challenges ahead to meet the tight physical and mental qualifications required by ReWalk. Then there was the price. At nearly $160,000 per ReWalk Exoskeleton, even if Himbert met ReWalk’s qualifications, insurance companies are often reluctant to cover this proven — yet expensive — cutting-edge technology. Finding a local physical therapist with the expertise and tools to do the hard work of learning and training in this new technology would be another challenge.
Finally, a qualified physical therapist was identified in Destination Rehab, a group that specializes in neurological and spinal cord injuries. For Himbert, it became the obvious choice.
“Destination Rehab does a lot of active outdoor things, and they are just great people to work with and so they were a perfect fit,” Himbert said.
A big part of Himbert’s approval for the program centered on his mental status and ongoing motivation for this rigorous program.
Jon King is the business development manager for ReWalk Robotics.
“He (Himbert) seems to have an amazing attitude in life, to live on with his life, and be positive, and be involved with his vocation, his community, his church, and so forth,” King said. “He just has a spirit about him where he wants to reach goals and do what he can to get there.”
In November, Himbert started an intensive three-month course with the therapists at Destination Rehab, to learn how to walk with the ReWalk Exoskeleton. The results were almost immediate.
“The machine (exoskeleton) is awesome!” he said. “It’s been a life changer! It’s way better than anything that I’ve ever experienced. Yet I still have to balance. I have to get that timing down of leaning and pushing off the crutches and keeping my forward momentum. Mentally being aware of obstacles so I can know where to put my crutches, so I know where I can push off from my next step. So there is a lot of work and mental fatigue as well.”
Himbert graduated from the program at the end of January and took his ReWalk Exoskeleton home.
John King commented on Himbert’s “graduation” from the ReWalk training course:
“To see his spirits lift once he started really rolling with it (the exoskeleton) are very consistent with what we’re seeing in everyone who embarks upon this journey with ReWalk.”
Part of the requirement of using the exoskeleton is having a walking/safety partner to train with from day one and to accompany him every time he goes out. Taking an uncontrolled fall backward in the 60-pound exoskeleton could injure Himbert, and risk damaging any part of the complicated rig, requiring a technician to fly in to ensure the exoskeleton is in proper working order.
“I’m single, on my own, and so to have someone to do this multiple times a week in the middle of the day, it really narrows the pool down,” Himbert said.
Fortunately, he was able to find that enthusiastic and dedicated walking partner in neighbor Rick Retzman.
“When Erik called me and asked if I could do this, I immediately cleared my calendar,” Retzman said.
“I’m lucky to have a guy like Rick on my team to be a part of this, so dedicated, (and) excited about it,” Himbert said. “He really pushes me to keep going, to try new things, so he’s been huge.”
Rick is enthusiastic about working with Erik and the ReWalk Exoskeleton.
“As Erik’s walking partner, my only job is to help him maintain balance and to have as minimal contact as possible, because we want Erik to be all Erik,” he said. “In his words, ‘to be more normal.’ It’s a huge blessing to be part of Erik’s story. This is a very rewarding experience for me.”
He noted, “At first it took about 20 minutes to get Erik strapped in to the machine (exoskeleton), and now he does it in two minutes. Yesterday we did a third of a mile in approximately an hour. It doesn’t sound like a whole lot. But it’s huge compared to the 12 weeks to go 10,000 steps, about four miles, so we covered a good chunk of that in
However, even in the short walk to the mailbox, Himbert faced challenges.
Figuring out how to get through a gate and across uneven pavement, chip seal, and loose gravel are just a few of the tests Himbert would face with his “new legs.”
“There are probably situations where I would still need to use the wheelchair. But just the benefits on my body of using the ReWalk three to four times a week, I’m progressing instead of regressing,” Himbert said. “I’m not going to die early because my body is failing me. This is so much better for the body, physically on every level, but also mentally.
“Everybody is used to seeing me in a wheelchair. I’m not able to talk to people eye to eye at their level. To me that’s what I remember before my accident. So that’s what feels normal when I’m standing up and looking at people. It makes me feel normal and that’s a good feeling to get back to.”
As Himbert and Retzman push into what’s possible, they are hoping by the end of summer to navigate the mile-long Whychus Creek Overlook Trail. That is certainly within reason. With an operating time of 10 hours, the only challenge is Himbert’s endurance. Although he has a strong upper body, the 60-pound exoskeleton and the mental toughness required adds to the challenges of safely ambulating the trails and streets of Sisters Country.
Himbert is now enthusiastic about his future, yet he has an even greater desire for other paraplegics.
“My hope is that more people get to use the machine. That’s what my ultimate goal is; I want to raise awareness for the machine, that it is something out there, and how amazing ReWalk and Destination Rehab have been to work with.
“It’s just huge, and I want more people to experience that.”