It was a chilly morning over three years when Paul Austin and Brandi Koltermann were enjoying their landscaping work together. Taking down a large tree was the next major task. Paul, formerly a rescue swimmer for the U.S. Navy, owns a landscaping business. One last limb had to be cut before the trunk. Paul climbed the tree while Brandi waited on the ground, ready to clear away the brush. Paul started up the saw but then grabbed the back of his leg. Falling from the tree ten feet, he broke his back and severed his spinal cord, a T11 complete injury.
Although life has changed, Paul and Brandi have maintained their business. They’re still receiving requests for work, but their roles are different. Paul cuts lawns and Brandi does the weeding. Paul is grateful he can still do the landscaping work he loves, even though tree removal is no longer an offering.
Brandi recalled her vivid memory of the accident. She held Paul’s head and talked to him to calmly while he received treatment. When told he was paralyzed, Paul looked dead in the eyes. He was devastated. He lost everything he worked so hard for. Paul worried that relationships would change.
Paul believed walking again was not an option. When he started rehab in Richmond, VA, he noticed the use of exoskeletons in physical therapy. He asked about “those Robo Cop legs.” As a Navy veteran, he went through the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center. He submitted his name to the research department, expressing interest in the exoskeleton. Six months later, he was called to take part in a nine-month program involving therapy twice a week. “The VA definitely helped with this process. They’ve been so supportive,” said Paul.
Seeing the exoskeleton in use in rehab, provided a glimmer of hope. When he tried the Indego exoskeleton, there was a smile on Paul’s face and hope in his heart. When he stood up, Brandi was overwhelmed with emotion. “You lost the use of your legs, and now this gives that back to you,” she said.
When Paul first stood up, Brandi was able to hug him face-to-face for the first time since the accident, and she cried. Paul loved the feeling of being able to look someone in the eyes again. “It’s an indescribable feeling. It was such a good feeling, because in your head you’re thinking you’re never going to walk again, and I can’t do this or that,” he said.
When Paul saw the Indego exoskeleton at the 2018 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Orlando, he knew he had to try it. The device wasn’t as bulky and had fewer components than the one he was using. With the Indego, mobility seemed almost graceful, very different than with his current exoskeleton. After a one-hour trial, they were convinced. The Indego provided a smoother more natural gait.
Plus, the Indego weighs significantly less. The couple did not travel with their first exoskeleton, but with the Indego, they knew that it was possible to be on the go. With the other brand, Paul felt like a machine because of its weight, feel, and rigid components. With the Indego, walking felt more natural.
The Indego exoskeleton was very easy to learn to use. He leaves the device charged and assembled in a chair. Then, with Brandi’s help, he simply transfers in and out as needed. “It does all of the work for you after that!” He did have to get used to walking around at home and on hills and ramps, but after practice, it didn’t take long to get accustomed to the Indego. Paul now walks three times a week, on average.
With the help of the VA and Indego, the process of acquiring the exoskeleton was streamlined. “As simple as it could be, and the communication was great,” said Paul.
Paul’s daughter is planning to get married, and he fully intends to walk her down the aisle. When he found out he was paralyzed, Paul gave up this dream, but Indego has made his dream possible. As a father, walking his daughter down the aisle is a major life milestone. “It’s a big deal,” he said.
A short time after using the Indego, Paul saw extreme improvement in his health, both physically and mentally. His upper body strength and bone and joint health has improved. And his mental outlook is better. “Thanks to the exoskeleton, there is hope for walking. It’s a great feeling. Everything feels a bit lighter. It’s made a true difference,” said Paul.
Paul is considered young for wheelchair use, but the couple has a positive outlook on life despite all that’s happened. They are always looking forward to new possibilities and opportunities. For example, Paul was able to start electrotherapy after using the Indego exoskeleton.
What’s next for the couple? This year’s 9/11 Memorial & Museum 5K Run/Walk in New York City. They set goals and the Indego helps achieve them. To prepare for the walk, Paul practices distance walking at home. Their quarter-mile long driveway is the perfect track. The first goal is to be able to walk a mile, with a pine tree or mailbox as the end marker. Recently, Paul has begun walking three quarters of a mile regularly. He’s excited to reach the one-mile mark. Brandi looks forward to the moment she can say, “You know what Paul, we did this.”
Brandi keeps an engraving near Paul’s National Wheelchair Games medals that states: An “I can’t” became “I can.” Later, Brandi updated the saying: An “I can’t” became an “I did.” Over the past few years, Paul progressed from believing he would never walk again and listing impossibilities to setting the goal of walking a mile.
Brandi keeps a list of things that Paul thinks he can’t do because he is in a wheelchair. They cross things off as they accomplish them together. Crossed off the list are: riding a four-wheeler, scuba diving, using a zero-turn lawn mower, going up in a hot air balloon, and walking!
The couple’s mission is now to encourage others. “We are in a place with technology where the question is, ‘Why not?’ At times, things can seem tough, but just never give up hope and always strive to be better,” they advised.