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Berkeley Bionics Gives People Their Legs Back

The device is a mechanical contraption some compare to the Iron Man.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Patients confined to wheelchairs are now up and walking, thanks to bionic legs developed in the Bay Area.NBC Bay Area's Marianne Favro has the story.

    On January 7, 2011 24-year-old Stephanie Sablan's life changed in a split second. "I was texting and driving and not wearing a seat belt. I was ejected and broke my back," said Sablan.

    Unable to feel her legs, she's been confined to a wheelchair ever since. That was until she strapped on eLegs, developed by Berkeley Bionics. She stood tall and walked around the room at a San Jose rehab center.

    "I definitely had to hold back the tears. I couldn't believe I was back standing since that is something that was taken away from me," said Sablan.

    "The machine contains a variety of sensors and there is a computer on board that controls the legs to take a natural step," said Adam Zoss, senior engineer with Berkeley Bionics, who added the company does not know how much it will cost when it goes to market.

    The patient is strapped into a 45 pound device including an electronic backpack. Sagan is part of a study at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center looking at the safety of the device.

    If it is found to be safe the hope is one day patients might use it on their own at home. "If it is prescribed as a wheelchair it would be kept on the night stand and then the patient could transfer into the device and walk  like you or I. That is the ultimate goal," said Stephanie Kolakowsky-Hayner, the Director of Rehabilitation Research.

    What's unique about eLegs is that the device has a bendable knee that patients say gives them a natural feel when they are walking.

    Therapists say it will not likely replace the wheelchair but it will give patients another option that allows them to stand tall. Sablan, who loves to cook, looks forward to getting back in the kitchen.

    "Even just to do cooking and watch over the stove instead of looking at it eye level that will be one of the biggest rewards."

    She is now planning to attend Ohlone College and become a social worker. She says eLegs will make it easier for her to achieve those goals and help her feel more independent.