Stacey Kozel, a 41-year old resident of Medina, Ohio has undertaken the enormous task of hiking the entire 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Of particular note is the fact that Kozel, a paralyzed woman, will use the Ottobock C-brace to achieve her goal. Diagnosed with lupus when she was 19 years old, Kozol’s muscle functions gradually deteriorated over the past 22 years.
Lupus is an auto-immune disease in which the immune cells attack healthy tissue instead of attacking pathogens, and as a result cause inflammation, pain, and damage in various parts of the body. Lupus, a chronic disease currently having no cure, affects every person differently and usually attacks in varying intensities.
That’s how it’s been for Kozel — every few years, she would have what she termed a “flare-up.” Each flare-up attacked Kozel’s central nervous system, causing her to lose control of her muscles.
“With lupus, you’re never really fine. You have good days and not so good days. You just kind of go with it,” she said Thursday night just after passing the 1,000-mile marker on the Appalachian Trail. “When these flare-ups happen, it really attacks your body.”
In March 2014, the disease attacked her legs with such intensity that she became paralyzed. Kozel said that it was her worst flare-up and left her disabled. “I kind of stumbled into the hospital. Within a couple of days, I lost all mobility. I couldn’t sit up. I couldn’t lift my head. It took three people to hold me up, because my body was dead weight, just stiff.” Slowly she gained control of both arms and most of her upper body but her legs never recovered. Kozel regained her core and arm strength but suffered permanent paralysis.
The episode occurred two months after Kozel completed a program to become a radiology technician. Her competency exams included a physical test requiring her to be on her feet. She knew she couldn’t perform the job with her paralysis, but she wanted to complete her exams anyway.
Afterwards, Kozel gravely searched the web for any kind of aid that would help her move. She eventually came across the Ottobock C-Brace, a computer controlled knee ankle foot orthosis (KAFO) that provides an entirely new approach to walking when back injuries or leg muscle weakness limit you. The device functions more like a mechanical leg rather than a simplistic brace and looks like a large black brace that cups around the foot and extends up the thigh. Its bendable knees joints are equipped with sensors that “measure the current position of the joint every .02 seconds.” Between the lower knee and the foot is a carbon/fiberglass spring, also equipped with a sensor that monitors ankle pressure.
What sets the C-Brace apart from other medical braces is the fact that it has a micro-sensor attached which receives data from the ankles and adjusts the hydraulic system located at the knee, helping the leg move. C-Brace was designed to help compensate for lower-limb mobility issues due to partial paralysis, incomplete spinal cord injury, post-polio syndrome, quadriceps weakness, and post-stroke.
The price of each leg brace is $75,000 with most insurance companies not covering the gadget. Kozel experienced the same disappointment as no insurance company would pay for it, citing it an unnecessary expense. However, after a year of disappointments and being confined to her wheelchair Kozel found a breakthrough as her appeal was finally accepted.
The braces felt strange at first, requiring Kozel to “walk” with her upper body, balancing herself. When she put on a backpack, it felt as though she might trip and fall over. But the 19-year old quickly adjusted and managed to easily walk around the house at first, followed by the block and the neighborhood.
The new hope gave Kozel a sense of urgency, motivating her not to take this opportunity for granted. Kozel eventually decided hiking across the Appalachian Trail — the longest hiking footpath in the world, stretching across 14 states from Georgia to Maine with a 464,500-foot change in elevation throughout the trail. Not only do trekkers have to climb the 464,500 feet elevation but they also have to trek across a route which only 1 in 4 hikers are able to complete. The statistics didn’t intimidate Kozel though, who has spent the past three months on the trail and was almost at the halfway mark on Friday.
The development comes as a welcome change since medical braces and prosthetics have not seen much innovation and technological advancement in recent years. However, the trend is steadily changing and many new devices that utilize science and technology are now appearing.
Recently DARPA developed a mind-controlled bionic arm having the capability of controlling arms of amputees using a computer that interprets brain signals.
Ottobock was founded in Germany in 1919 by Otto Bock, a prosthetist. Currently the company has 46 locations across 100 countries, and is headquartered in Duderstadt, Germany with more than 5000 employees working on developing mobility-enhancing products such as prostheses, braces and orthoses.