Austin Whitney (pictured) walked on Saturday. No faith healers were involved.
Yet when the paralyzed 22-year-old rose from his wheelchair and stepped across the UC Berkeley commencement stage to shake Chancellor Robert Birgeneau's hand, the crowd of 15,000 at Edwards Stadium went wild with cheers, as if witnessing a miracle.
In a way, they were.
"Ask anybody in a wheelchair; ask what it would mean to once again stand and shake someone's hand while facing them at eye level," Whitney said in anticipation of his momentous day. "It will be surreal, like a dream."
Or like putting on the Iron Man suit and acquiring super powers. A team of UC Berkeley mechanical engineers - four doctoral students led by Professor Homayoon Kazerooni - have been developing a computerized body brace called an exoskeleton they believe will be good enough to transform thousands of wheelchair users into walking people in a couple of years, and for an affordable price.
Whitney, a history and political science major, has worked with the team in their lab for nine months, testing, advising and preparing for the machine's premiere - and his own, as a graduate on two legs.
On Saturday, as more than 2,000 seniors in caps and gowns stood beneath chilly gray skies waiting for their names to be called, Whitney remained behind the stage until nearly all had shaken the chancellor's hand. Then, his yellow history honors ribbon flapping against the exoskeleton strapped around his gown, he wheeled his chair up onto the stage, accompanied by members of the engineering team.
Four years ago, Whitney had no trouble walking across the graduation stage at St. Margaret's Episcopal High School in San Juan Capistrano. He was a straight-A student involved in theater, sports and student government. And he anticipated a carefree summer before heading to UC Santa Barbara in the fall.
A month later, on July 21, 2007, Whitney shared a few drinks with friends, climbed into his car and drove into a tree.
"I wasn't in pain," he told one of the dozens of high school audiences he visits each year to share his story and show what can happen with drunken drivers. "All I remember was that violent crash that sounds like, you know, the wrinkling of a potato chip bag." A huge photo of Whitney's pancaked blue car serves as the backdrop to his talk.
His spine severed above his hips, Whitney spent 41 days in the hospital feeling "completely, 100 percent, broken down," he told the students.
He worked not only on physical recovery, but on his approach to life. He quit drinking. He decided that attitude trumped all and that even a paralyzing car crash couldn't rob him of control over that.
Ten days after his release from the hospital, Whitney enrolled in community college. He soon transferred to UC Santa Barbara, and then to Berkeley for his sophomore year.
Meanwhile, UC Berkeley engineers had been at work. By the time Whitney arrived on campus in 2008, Kazerooni and his team had been developing robotic exoskeletons for nearly a decade. Their research into smart body frames began as a Defense Department project to find a better way for soldiers to haul heavy loads over long distances, then blossomed into Berkeley Bionics, a company Kazerooni co-founded in 2005.
The potential benefit for people who can't walk became obvious, and last October the company unveiled E-Legs, an exoskeleton to be sold to rehabilitation clinics for around $90,000. Similar systems developed in New Zealand and Israel cost even more.
But the exoskeleton Whitney wore at Saturday's graduation was different. Like the others, it requires the user to walk with crutches or a walker, and to wear a power pack. But the stripped-down, no frills walking machine is expected to cost around $15,000 - about the same as a high-end motorized wheelchair.
"When Austin wants to walk, he asks the system to take a step or stand up or sit down," using a switch on the connected walker or crutches, team member Michael McKinley explains in a video. "That sends a command to the computer, and the computer executes the motion."
Though Whitney assumed he'd be a passive participant in Kazerooni's Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory - known as "the Kaz- Lab" - the opposite proved true. The machine now has flatter feet because Whitney found the design unstable. Its crutches have telescoping legs because Whitney showed how users change height when they stand up. And its hand controls have locks now because, he pointed out, unintended movements can lead to falls.
The engineers named their machine "Austin," after Austin Whitney.
"Four years ago, doctors told me I'd never walk again," he said Saturday morning. "I never, ever would've thought I'd walk. It really makes me hesitate to ever use the word 'impossible.' "
Seated on the stage alongside Berkeley dignitaries were Whitney's parents, Jim and Lillian, and his sister Laura, 18.
"We're grateful that the injury that severed his spinal cord did not damage his mind or his own inner self. It's only made him stronger and more determined," Jim Whitney said before the ceremony.
His gratitude extended to Kazerooni and the team of McKinley, Jason Reid, Wayne Tung and Minerva Pillai. "This is going to change the lives of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people around the world," he said.
But on Saturday, all eyes were on his son.
As Whitney rolled onto the stage, the stadium grew quiet. Someone placed the walker in front of him and Whitney grasped the handles, pushed himself into a standing position and pressed a switch.
His right leg moved forward. Then his left. Whitney paused and steadied himself. With an audible click, his right leg took another step. Then his left. One more right. Another left. He was facing the chancellor, eye to eye.
The men shook hands as the audience erupted in cheers. And they hugged, as the announcer called out the final graduate's name.
Sunday, May 15, 2011
The San Francisco Chronicle:
Posted by BA Haller at 5:37 PM