A Calgary teenager, seriously injured in a 2015 sledding accident, made a lasting impression at Bowness High School's graduation ceremony by doing away with his wheelchair and crossing the stage on foot in an exoskeleton suit to receive his diploma.
Alex McEwan, 17, was the last of the graduating class of approximately 200 students to be called during Monday’s ceremony. The wheelchair-bound teen shocked nearly everyone in attendance by walking the stage of the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in a robotic suit using forearm crutches for support.
“It was an amazing feeling,” said Alex who is paralyzed from the mid-chest down. “I had a hard time keeping it together but thankfully I was able to focus on the walking and that kept me composed.”
Alex’s public debut in an exoskeleton suit drew cheers, applause and tears from the crowd. “It was unreal. I will never get a feeling like that again in my life.”
On December 21, 2015, Alex was celebrating his 15th birthday with friends on an unsanctioned tobogganing hill in Silver Springs when his sled rotated and he struck a pole headfirst. Following the crash, the teen was unable to feel his legs and hospital tests confirmed he had broken three vertebrae.
Kyle McIntosh, a neurological-physiotherapist at Foothills Medical Centre, worked with Alex and the exoskeleton suit in preparation for the ceremony.
“For someone like Alex who doesn’t have any function in his legs,(he) is able to make it work by shifting his weight in certain directions,” explained McIntosh. “He uses forearm crutches and looks for targets that we set laterally and forward. Once he hits those targets on one side, the machine takes a step for him. Then he shifts his weight and moves his crutches on the other side and basically continues the process.”
McIntosh says Alex, who lacks core and abdominal strength due to his injury, underwent daily sessions for a week to develop comfort with the suit. “It is very, very difficult to do. He spent a good amount of time training to get ready for this day.”
Alex’s parents had seen their son, the oldest of their four boys, walk with the use of the exoskeleton suit before but say watching him on stage was a completely different experience.
“It was overwhelming,” said John McEwan. “I was trying to shoot some video but my eyes were watering so bad that I’m not sure what I got.”
“To have this moment where he’s graduating and got to walk the stage and to hear his fellow students and the staff and the faculty and the principal and everyone around with that support…” added Stella McEwan before becoming overcome with emotion. “He had his accident in Grade 10 so he lost a lot of time in hospital and potentially a lot of schooling. There was a good chance he would have to graduate a year later. Graduating with his friends, on time, and then, on top of it, to have this exoskeleton where he can have the opportunity to do what all of his other friends did and walk the stage, it’s almost like a little bit of closure.”
The exoskeleton suit was part of a recently concluded research project funded by the Calgary Health Trust through the Alberta Paraplegic Foundation and Hotchkiss Brain Institute. The relatively new technology will continue to be used by select patients with life altering injuries at the Foothills Medical Centre.
Alex hopes his experience will inspire others. “There’s always hope something good will come out of something negative. My injury was a negative but a lot of good things have come out of it. This is one of them. I got an amazing graduation.”
With files from CTV’s Ina Sidhu