Robotic exoskeleton helps spinal injury, stroke patients move again

Robotic exoskeleton helps spinal injury, stroke patients move again



SCRANTON — Donald Hilstolsky knew about the pit. It was on the far side of the jump.

He and his friends had been riding laps on the motocross track when he overshot the jump and hit the hole.

“I just over jumped, just a little bit, enough to get the front tire,” he said. “I went over the bars and when I hit, the impact broke my back.”

The injury left the 47-year-old from Franklin Twp. with spinal cord damage. A tear near his T7 vertebrae paralyzed him from the ribs down.

For the last year, he’s been wheelchair bound, but a medical device new to the region replaces the strength and rigidity that his disrupted nervous system no longer gives him — at least for two hours a week.

For the past month, he’s been working with therapists at Allied Services in Scranton to field test the Indego robotic exoskeleton. Allied is only the second rehabilitation health system in Pennsylvania to use the exoskeleton. The device is on loan from Ohio-based developer Parker.

“The benefits of using something like this for anybody, not only like my situation, it’s very beneficial just to be standing and moving,” Hilstolsky said.

The device hugs his waist and has arms that extend downward, strapped to both legs. On its own, training with the exoskeleton will not return feeling and function to Hilstolsky’s legs. Doctors stitched the torn piece of his spinal cord back together, but he still has no sensation or control — only pain and spasms.

Allied therapy Manager Stacey Williams said spinal injuries such as his have roughly a one- to two-year window to heal on their own. Emerging medicine may hold some promise for his particular situation, but it isn’t clear yet whether Hilstolsky is a good candidate.

He may never regain use of his legs, but he and his wife, Cheryl, remain steadfast. “We don’t give up hope,” he said.

While it’s no silver bullet for restoring mobility, the exoskeleton is still an important piece of his therapy regimen. For an hour at a time, two times a week, he leaves his wheelchair and moves limbs that otherwise mostly remain still. The motion helps blood circulate in his legs, and also improves bowel and bladder function. 

Allied plans to buy two exoskeletons sometime early next year, one for its Scranton campus and one at its John Heinz campus in Wilkes-Barre Twp. They cost $125,000 apiece, a price that includes training for therapists.

The exoskeleton has been around commercially for a few years to aid spinal injury patients, but in February, the Food and Drug Administration cleared it to treat stroke patients, opening it to a much broader patient population. A feature of the brain called neuroplasticity allows unaffected parts to relearn functions that were lost during a stroke.

“You can retrain the brain so that other areas can take over this lost function,” said Stefan Bircher, Ph.D., global market development manager at Parker. “But to retrain the brain, you really need to do this particular exercise — in our case it’s walking – you need to do this (over and) over again.”

JAKE DANNA STEVENS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Donald Hilstolsky of Dallas walks Saturday with help from an Indego robotic exoskeleton at Valor Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Scranton.

Contact the writer:;


@jon_oc on Twitter