The Big Walk is a Cape Town tradition. Very much a family-oriented event, it draws thousands of participants – most of them pretty ordinary individuals like you and me. They come to challenge themselves, raise money for charity, or simply to soak up the festivities. There’s a test for virtually every level of ability, from 5 km all the way up to the formidable 80 km slog that takes race walkers the length of the Cape Peninsula and back. For Andrew Merryweather, though, even the simple act of stepping across the start line on race day this year will signal triumph: he has spent nearly seven years confined to a wheelchair, unable to carry out one of humans’ most basic actions – walking. That’s all changed, thanks to a remarkable high-tech exoskeleton suit.
Merryweather was left paralysed after an attack at a filling station convenience store six years ago.
This week, Merryweather’s support group disclosed that he had undergone training in the UK at training at Cyclone Mobility. As a result, he was – at last – able to walk with the aid of a high-tech exoskeleton suit. His reaction: “I really truly felt different feelings in my legs and an overall sense of wellbeing. I just know that, with the opportunity to spend time consistently in a walking suit I WILL be able to walk again.”
The exoskeleton suit consists of a light wearable brace support suit. Motors power knee and hip movement, monitored by a range of sensors under the control of a computer. Built-in algorithms analyse body movements, and trigger and maintain gait patterns for up to eight hours.
The group has raised R200 000 towards the Argo ReWalk exoskeleton suit’s 45 000-pound (about R725 000) purchase price. They aim to have the suit in Cape Town in time for this year’s Big Walk on November 11th.