Bionic woman skis, bikes and helps others thrive after paralysis

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CNN Hero Amanda Boxtel 03:00

Basalt, Colorado (CNN)Amanda Boxtel was 24 years old when she lay in a hospital bed, unable to move her legs.

A doctor came in to tell her she would never walk again -- that her skiing accident had shattered four vertebrae and she was paralyzed from the waist down.
CNN Hero Amanda Boxtel
"I was an athlete. I was a dancer; an aerobics dancer with big hair in the '80s," said Boxtel, now 50. "I felt invincible. And that all changed in a split second."
Despite her injury, Boxtel didn't stop living life. In the 26 years since, she's had many adventures: skiing, mountain biking, parasailing, traveling the world.
    "Destiny waits for no woman," Boxtel often says. "There wasn't the technology we have today. So, I had to figure out a lot for myself. I started my own fitness regimen and found my new life."
    In 2010, she learned about bionic exoskeleton suits -- machines that help people with mobility issues walk. In an exoskeleton, Boxtel took her first step in 18 years.
    She loved it so much, she raised funds to purchase her own. In a little more than a year, she took about 130,000 steps in the machine. Her health began to improve, her chronic pain started to decrease, and she felt stronger than ever.
    "Human bodies are meant to stand and walk," she said.
    But Boxtel also felt guilty, realizing this technology was not easily accessible or affordable.
    "I thought, 'Amanda, why do you have to be the lucky girl? This is a fully adjustable device. We could get a whole community up and walking with this unit.' "
    In 2014, she started Bridging Bionics to do just that. The nonprofit provides high-tech physical therapy to people with mobility impairments near Aspen, Colorado.
    The program is based in two local fitness facilities. The group's physical therapists work one-on-one with clients, creating individualized plans based on their mobility issues -- ranging from spinal cord injuries to neurological disorders like multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and Parkinson's disease.
    "I wanted to ... put it into a health club that promoted wellbeing, where someone could just walk in an exoskeleton doing physical therapy, but alongside someone else on a treadmill," Boxtel said. "Disability can be socially isolating, and we are about bridging community, getting people out of their homes and engaging."
    The organization has provided its free or low-cost therapeutic sessions to more than 60 people, helping them overcome their injuries and do something doctors never believed possible: walk again.
    CNN's Meghan Dunn spoke with Boxtel about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
    CNN: What was it like the first time you stood up in an exoskeleton suit?
    Amanda Boxtel: When I stood up, I looked at the world from a new perspective. It was as if all my dreams were burgeoning to life in one upright, powerful moment. It was psychological.
    For the first time, I could look across the room at things high. I wasn't looking up at nostrils or looking at navels. My world changed. It was not just this amazing physiological thing that happened to me. I could look at someone eye to eye, and I could have that delicious heart to heart hug.
    CNN: Your organization uses two types of technology. What are they, and how do they help?
    Boxtel: I incorporated whole body, side-alternating vibration and the bionic exoskeleton suit. I believe that the combination of these two technologies can reduce the risk of secondary complications associated with paralysis and neuromuscular impairments. The combination gives you a cardio workout, an increase in joint range of motion and circulation, especially in the paralyzed extremities. The main thing is a decrease in spasticity. Tone reduction or spasticity is so common, and these technologies combat that.
    CNN Heroes: Learning to walk...again
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    The exoskeleton on its own takes it a step further. You can fully weight bear; it is fully supporting the individual, and that is critical for bone density. Your joints and bones are aligned as they were designed to be. It helps a person walk over ground, but not with stiff legs. It is a very natural gait, where I am bending my knee and I am striking the ground with my heel as you do when you walk. But I am walking over ground through space with the world going by me -- so I am getting the visual cues to help rewire the brain and reconnect neuropathways. And there is evidence that just pure robotics assist and repetitive stepping over ground is rehabilitative.
    CNN: You're also helping people have access to this technology all the time, beyond the therapy sessions.
    Boxtel: We help people with fundraising campaigns to acquire advanced technology to use at home -- so they can access this every day. If you can have this at home every day, it will help with secondary complications and recovery. But it is daunting when you find out something costs $90,000. So, that's where we come in and provide fundraising materials and fundraising ideas to help.
    Everybody should have access to this technology. That's my goal. How do we make this for humanity so that people don't just sit at home? People need to start believing in themselves and their potential. Life isn't over. They can still recover.
    Want to get involved? Check out the Bridging Bionics website and see how to help.
    To donate to Bridging Bionics, click the CrowdRise widget below.