Paralyzed by accident, grad student engineers his future with exoskeleton

Ph.D. student Andrew Ekelem, far left, and physical therapist Christina Durrough work with exoskeleton test subject Dustin Fleeman. (John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

Andrew Ekelem sits in a wheelchair at the bottom of the fifth-floor stairwell at Olin Hall, laptop balanced on his thighs, quick keystrokes making tiny adjustments for the exoskeleton that promises to change his life.

It’s carrying a test subject up 10 stairs before the safety of a landing, one painstaking move at a time, a physical therapist and two other people protecting him from falling. The exoskeleton lifts his foot a fraction too low, and he kicks a step; not far enough forward, and the therapist must give it a nudge.

If Ekelem is impatient with this process, it’s impossible to tell. But he readily admits it’s his impatience that brought him to Vanderbilt University for his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering.


The exoskeleton he’s programming could one day help him walk and potentially impact the lives of an estimated 250,000-400,000 Americans living with spinal cord injuries or dysfunction.

Ekelem, 25, earned his undergraduate degree in bioengineering in 2012 from University of California-Berkeley, choosing the field so he could specialize in stem cell research for spinal cord regeneration. A semester spent at the Reeve-Irvine Research Center at UC-Irvine changed that goal.

“There’s a lot of hopeful stuff in the works,” Ekelem said. “But the process – it takes many years to get to human trials. It was disheartening. I wanted to get back to electronics and mechanical engineering and working on rehab devices.”

He spent his last year at Berkeley in that school’s exoskeleton lab. So when he decided to go for a Ph.D., there was really only one lab he wanted – that of Michael Goldfarb, Vanderbilt’s internationally recognized H. Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering, whose light, portable exoskeleton is in clinical trials at five spinal cord rehabilitation centers across the country.

‘I may not walk after this’

Growing up in Walnut, Calif., 20 minutes east of Los Angeles, Ekelem was a smart, active kid, the son of an urgent care physician and an anesthesiologist. He earned spots on school tennis and wrestling teams and skateboarded for fun.

He littered his room with pieces of remote-controlled cars, winning a Los Angeles County science fair in 7th grade with one powered by a solar panel taken from a garden lamp. By 8th grade, he knew he’d be an engineer.

A horrific accident shaped which kind.

Physical therapist Christina Durrough supports Dustin Fleeman on his climb up an Olin Hall stairwell. (John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

It was Sunday, March 7, 2010, in Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe, the end of a long weekend of snowboarding. Ekelem insisted on one more jump – one of the highest. His friends agreed to wait.

“I thought the worst thing that could happen was that I’d break an arm,” he said. “When I got to the top of the jump, and I was in the air, I thought, ‘I may not walk after this.’ I was facing the sky. When I landed on my back, I felt fine. Then I tried to get up and couldn’t move my legs.

“I was surprised how tranquil I was. I didn’t freak out, which was probably the wrong reaction.”

A helicopter delivered Ekelem to a Reno, Nev., hospital for emergency surgery. He was hopeful and clung to stories about people who learned to walk again after accidents like his.

But after a CT scan revealed a misplaced pedicle screw – the implements that secure metal rods so spinal fusion can occur — Ekelem underwent a second surgery. He began to notice that his physical therapists didn’t talk about what it would take to walk again. Instead, they discussed maneuvering his wheelchair and stretching to be sure his muscles didn’t contract.

Sitting out of UC-Berkeley during his recovery, Ekelem found an advocate in Diana Lizarraga, who coordinates Cal NERDS (New Experiences for Research and Diversity in Science). It’s a program aimed at promoting racial, ethnic and gender diversity in STEM fields, plus opening doors to research opportunities.

Lizarraga lined up Ekelem’s UC-Irvine spinal cord research. He returned to Berkeley even more determined to be a successful engineer.

“Andrew started talking about going to graduate school. There was no doubt in his mind that he was going to give it a go,” Lizarraga said. “He’s the most humble person. He never got into a lot of big talk about his work, even though he was presenting at research conferences before graduation. I can’t say enough great things about him.”

Background, perspective earns place

Ekelem’s engineering background was ideal for the exoskeleton team, Goldfarb said. But his accident gave him a perspective few graduate students acquire.

“He’s more highly motivated and has more insight about what we want to do,” Goldfarb said. “We can do the engineering, but it’s impossible to get the insight that Andrew brings. If I were in his position, I would want to be in a lab with this technology.”

Licensed as Indego, the exoskeleton weighs 26 pounds and breaks into five pieces that users easily transport and put on by themselves. Ekelem and the rest of Goldfarb’s team is working on an addition — sending electrical impulses to users’ leg muscles, which encourages healthy movement and conserves the battery because motors would do less work.

Dr. Gerasimos Bastas, Dustin Fleeman and Andrew Ekelem make their way down the hall. (John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

The Indego technology is licensed to Parker Hannifin Corp. and is expected to have FDA approval and go on the market late this year.

That day in the stairwell, it was Dustin Fleeman of Lawrenceburg, Tenn., wearing the exoskeleton, rising to his feet in one swift motion with the push of its blue power button. When he leaned forward to indicate he wanted to walk, the exoskeleton instantly complied. Fleeman, whose spinal cord injury is mid-waist, moved easily down the hall outside Goldfarb’s lab, first with a walker, then with crutches clasped to his forearms for balance, the quiet whir of Indego’s motors accompanying his every step.

Ekelem rolled his wheelchair behind, his laptop tethered to the Indego by 25 feet of wire, clicking boxes marked ascent, descent, walking and standby – information that will one day be stored within the exoskeleton itself.

Working on it fills his life these days – a mission only interrupted to care for his Labrador-pit bull mix, Amber, plus handcycling and Sled Preds, ice hockey on sleds for paraplegic players. He’s on track to earn his Ph.D. in 2018.

“My injury has given me experience I can learn from and can use to make life better for other people,” he said.

“And myself.”


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering