Fascinating technology

Spacesuit technology helps Minnesota patients walk again

Breakthrough technology is helping patients at Allina Health’s Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute get back on their feet. The Lite Run System was designed to reduce the weight a patient needs to support themselves.

“I love it because I can start walking again,” said Courage Kenny patient Tony Lancaster. “In fact, I’ve walked the farthest I’ve walked in a long time.”

Lancaster spent months rebuilding his strength after suffering a stroke in November. Bleeding from the right side of his brain caused paralysis on the left side of his body.

“The last thing I remember is being put in an ambulance,” he said. “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t even stand.”

Her father, Bob Lancaster, rushed to the hospital.

“The prognosis that was given to me was that he wasn’t going to make it,” Bob Lancaster said. “When I bumped into him in the room that morning, he wasn’t moving. He was motionless.

Moments after his father entered the room and spoke to him, Tony held out his hand.

“And I know he’s going to fight,” Bob Lancaster said. “He’s going to fight for his life and he’s not going to give up.”

Along with two physiotherapists, they’ve done some tricks at Courage Kenny this week. Tony was assisted by the Lite Run system.

“Amazing to say the least,” said Bob Lancster. “As a parent, words just can’t describe him.”

The technology includes pants that look like snow pants. The therapists fill the pants with air, an amount they can adjust. The air pressure essentially lifts the patient, reducing their body weight.

It is used to help patients who have suffered a spinal cord injury, brain injury, or stroke.

“One thing I like to compare it to is walking on water, where the water will lift you up and take some of the weight off your feet,” said Dan Frush, physical therapist at Courage Kenney. “Feels a bit more natural than other options which might be a bit more mechanical.”

The suit uses technology similar to astronaut space suits. According to the developers of Lite Run, the special fabric maintains air pressure while allowing the joints to have full mobility.

“I think on the surface it might seem a bit silly and you think ‘How is this really going to work? but then you start using it and then you see ‘Oh so and so could only walk 50 feet the other day and now they’re walking 500 feet in it,’” Frush said. “When you work with people who have these kinds of wounds, repetition is the kind of thing we always look for because that’s what will heal them.”

He estimates that 10 to 15 patients have benefited from the technology since they started using it in January.

“Nearly all of our patients here are going through a life-changing event, so there’s a lot of uncertainty when they get here,” Frush said. “I think it’s really exciting to see people start to feel a little more normal again, doing something they’re used to.”

Lancaster recently started using the Lite Run system. Friends who have been by his side throughout his recovery have noticed a positive change.

“It was amazing to see, even just his excitement to get better and start walking more,” said Richard Rucker, who has been friends with Tony for 20 years. “Helping him with self-esteem is helping him in all aspects.”

Rucker was with Tony the day before his stroke and told us he didn’t notice any signs that his friend was about to have a life-threatening emergency.

“I got the call the next day from his roommate that he had had the stroke,” Rucker said. “They were saying it was really grim and we should prepare for the worst that he wasn’t going to wake up.”

Over the past few months, relatives said they witnessed Tony’s determination to recover.

“He’s so proud of himself,” said Diane Pfeffer, another longtime friend. “Tears of joy to see him make the progress he has.”

Movement is an essential part of Lancaster life. He performs in drag shows across the Twin Cities.

“My biggest fear was, because he’s a performer and it’s his love for this scene, that hearing he was paralyzed scared me that he might never do that again,” said said Pfeffer.

The Courage Kenny team worked his muscles to build strength and endurance. He can now stand up and walk with help.

“It’s been a long hard journey, lots of blood, sweat, tears, pain, sore muscles, lots of pinched nerves, it’s all been worth it just so I can get my life back,” said Tony Lancaster. “I have been very lucky, very blessed and very favored.”

This week, he was able to stand up and hug his father who was from Connecticut.

“If anyone had seen it that day and seen what we saw today, it’s amazing beyond words,” Bob Lancaster said. “Great progress and I know more are coming.”