Michelle Stilwell, MLA for Parksville-Qualicum, uses the Lokomat machine at the Neuromotion Physio clinic in Victoria. - Submitted photo

VIDEO: B.C. MLA Michelle Stilwell takes first steps in nearly 30 years

‘It actually felt like walking. It’s been 27 years… but it felt realistic to me’

Parksville Qualicum MLA Michelle Stilwell took her first extended steps in 27 years this week, using a special mechanical device.

Stilwell was involved in an accident at age 17 that left her a quadriplegic. Losing the ability to walk didn’t curtail her deep love of sports and she eventually went on to become one of Canada’s most-decorated Paralympic athletes, winning multiple gold medals for Canada in wheelchair basketball and wheelchair racing.

Stilwell visited the Neuromotion Physio clinic in Victoria for a session on a Lokomat—a device that provides highly repetitive and physiological gait training for patients with neurological issues.

The user is suspended in a harness over the treadmill, and the robotic frame is fitted to the client’s legs. The robotic frame then moves the client’s legs (with or without the client’s active participation) in a natural walking pattern.

Using the Lokomat, Stilwell was able to walk 800 metres (1,140 steps), more than she’s done in nearly three decades.

ALSO READ: Paralympic champion and Parksville MLA Michelle Stilwell retires from international competiton

“It’s a different perspective being that tall when you’re so used to sitting all the time,” Stilwell said. “It actually felt like walking. It’s been 27 years… but it felt realistic to me.”

ALSO READ: Stilwell to be inducted into Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame

Stilwell said she had tried a walking brace about 22 years ago but that, because of the state of technology back then, it was quite stiff and basically felt like a body cast.

“In my old brace I couldn’t flex my ankles, I couldn’t get that realistic gait pattern that you get from walking,” she said.

She said at first, using the Lokomat felt uncomfortable because her hips were tight, but after some adjustments to the machine she was able to loosen up and could take larger steps.

Stilwell said she was recommended the Lokomat by MLA for Surrey-Panorama, Stephanie Cadieux.

“I had a bone density test done almost two years ago and that’s something fairly common for somebody with a spinal cord injury, you kind of monitor things because when you’re not walking, your risk of osteoporosis increases,” Stilwell said. “About a year ago, I also got a standing frame for work so that I would do more weight bearing during the day to help decrease my risk of osteoporosis because my bone density test had shown I had jumped quite a bit. Then when Stephanie was telling me about [the Lokomat] I thought ‘that sounds fantastic.’”

Stilwell said the benefits of using the Lokomat for her are that it will help with flexibility and weight bearing, which could help decrease the risk of osteoporosis.

She said she hopes to continue using the device but will have to look into it further as sessions are fairly expensive at $175.

“Some health care benefits will cover it when you do it with a physiotherapist so I’m looking at whether that’s an option,” she said. “I certainly use my standing frame everyday that I can when I’m here in Victoria.”

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