After a skiing accident left her paralyzed from the waist down, Amanda Boxtel was told she would never walk again. Refusing to surrender, she set out to prove to her doctors — and to herself — that she could overcome her fate.
The journey took her nearly 20 years, but thanks to an artificially intelligent bionic device, she was able to achieve her improbable goal. On Sunday, she shared her extraordinary story as part of Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital's Empowerment through Medical Rehabilitation series at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort.
Boxtel was skiing in Aspen, Colo., in 1992 when she took her life-altering fall and found herself paralyzed.
“I was 22 years old," the native of Brisbane, Australia, told the audience. "I was an aerobics instructor. I was a dancer. I was an athlete.
"Then, all of a sudden, all of that changed in a split second.”
A few weeks after the accident, a young doctor came to her hospital room to deliver the news.
“'Amanda, you will never walk again',” Boxtel recalled him telling her. “But in that moment, I decided to prove him wrong.”
Boxtel asked the audience members to steady their feet on the ground and hold their hands straight forward. To demonstrate what it’s like to be paralyzed, she asked everyone to try to move their hands and feet only with their thoughts. Nobody could.
“Surrender your mind to only the thought of moving," she explained. "All you have is the memory of how it was."
Boxtel described paralysis as a cold injury. It’s a loss of sensation but it also means having to deal with psychological issues. She said it took her several weeks to fully understand what the doctor had told her.
But although she couldn’t walk, Boxtel was determined to keep living a rich and full life. As proof, she played a video of all the activities she did before the accident. She’s skiing, bicycling, skydiving and dancing.
After fast-forwarding to after the accident, the video shows Boxtel still skiing, bicycling, skydiving and dancing. She’s living a fully active life with the help of physical means.
“I could still live a magical life,” Boxtel said. “But there was still one thing I couldn’t do, that wasn’t invented yet. Walk.”
For many years, she tried a lot of different physical therapy regimens and was able to regain some movement, but no method could help her walk again. Eventually, she started to imagine some type of robot.
In July 2010, Boxtel finally proved her doctor wrong. Berkeley Bionics, now Ekso Bionics, had developed a new exoskeleton called eLEGS, an artificially intelligent bionic device. With the help of a 5-foot-7-inch frame, she was able to walk almost naturally for the first time in 18 years.
“To be able to take one step and then another, and to make it feel normal in my head ... It was amazing,” Boxtel said. “I’m able to walk with these legs, on the ground and in alignment.”
Taking her first steps in a long time wasn’t easy, and Boxtel said she had to relearn "Walking 101." As she spoke, the atmosphere in the hotel meeting room changed when Boxtel moved from her wheelchair to her eLEGS. Everyone watched quietly as she took a few steps, and then stood on her own.
“It’s a great reversal because I’m standing and you’re all sitting down,” she said with a smile.
In 1995, Boxtel co-founded Challenge Aspen, a nonprofit organization that assists adaptive athletes in reaching their athletic goals. She wanted to set herself free again by returning to the sport that took away the use of her legs.
“I feel as I stand here in front of you, I’m walking for you," she said. "I’m walking for my mother, for my sister, for my friends. I’m walking for everyone who shares the same dream as me."
Wiht help from her physical therapist, Boxtel is able to use her eLEGS for one hour a day, five days a week. She’s the first person in the United States to own her own.
“I just want to say to everyone in a wheelchair, ‘prepare your bodies to walk, cause now we can’,” she exclaimed.
Sunday's presentation, ”Enhancing Mobility with Bionic Technology,” was sponsored by the Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation. Each year, the foundation sponsors a public presentation by exceptional people on topics concerning medical rehabilitation and its empowering effects on the lives of people with disabilities.
Click here for more information on Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital, or call 805.687.7444.