On Tuesday evening Amanda Boxtel sat in her wheelchair in the lobby of the Carbondale Recreation Center, surrounded by hundreds of people who had gathered there to watch her walk.
Boxtel wore a black bionic suit called an Ekso strapped around her ankles, thighs, stomach and chest. She leaned on crutches as she braced herself to stand.
“How many steps do you think we can walk?” Boxtel asked the crowd of about 30 children from Carbondale’s Camp Run-a-Muk who had gathered around her in a semi-circle.
“One-thousand!” cried the kids in unison.
“Which country would that get us to?” Boxtel asked.
“Texas!” the kids replied.
Boxtel, 45, of Basalt, is a co-founder of the Snowmass Village-based nonprofit group Challenge Aspen, which helps disabled people experience outdoor sports. She founded the group in 1995, three years after her own tragic skiing accident at Snowmass left her paralyzed from the waist down.
On Tuesday, though, Boxtel also became the first person in the world to own the latest version of an Ekso suit, a robotic exoskeleton that uses a combination of battery-powered motors and a user’s own muscle power to help paralyzed individuals re-learn to walk.
As Boxtel stood with the help of three trainers and made her way out of the recreation center lobby into the courtyard beyond, the crowd erupted in applause. Many of the spectators were confined to wheelchairs themselves, and had gathered to witness the cutting edge of bionic technology.
Ekso Bionics was founded in Berkeley, Calif. in 2005, and in 2009 an executive at the company invited Boxtel to try their trademark suit through her friendship with the company’s chief financial officer.
The suit uses motors activated with the push of a button to propel a user forward, and it can be controlled either by a physical therapist or the user.
On Tuesday, when she started out, a physical therapist pushed the button for Boxtel and after that, she walked independently with a therapist behind her.
“I had actually visualized myself walking in an exoskeleton type device,” said Boxtel in an interview Tuesday. “It was the power of intentionality, and that’s what this entire event is about today, it’s about putting it out to the universe and manifesting what we really want.”
Once she began using the device, Boxtel said she began to notice less swelling in her usually chair-bound legs, and her bowels and bladder began to function better. She experienced increased mental clarity, she said, along with a sharp reduction in pain in her legs and spine.
“I never talk about my pain, but it’s something that I’ve lived with for 21 years,” she said about her neuropathic pain. “When I walk in this device, I don’t know why, but it’s dramatically reduced.”
Boxtel, who is a representative for Ekso Bionics, got a discount on her bionic suit, which typically runs about $150,000. She raised around $60,000 in private donations to buy the suit and is raising about $15,0000 more to hire physical therapists to help her use the device.
Boxtel spoke to summer day campers last year and the kids were inspired then to help her buy new legs. The kids at Camp Run-a-Muk chipped in about $2,400 they earned selling lemonade, friendship bracelets and painted footprints they had made. In return, they got to tear open the giant box containing Boxtel’s bionic suit on Tuesday evening.
“It’s Christmas in July,” Boxtel said. “This is as much about the children as it is about me, and about embracing the power of new bionic technology.”