HEALTH: Innovative therapy revives paralysed dad’s dream of walking daughters down the aisle


By Lucy Ashton

A father-of-four who was left with almost no hope of walking again after a horrific car crash in 2020, is now dreaming of walking his daughters down the aisle thanks to an innovative therapy he is receiving at the Queen Elizabeth National Spinal Injuries Unit (QENSIU) in Glasgow.

Luke Louden, 32, suffered a broken neck and back, alongside multiple serious leg injuries, in the accident in August 2020, and for more than two years he was forced to contemplate the end of his life as he knew it.

“I was a dairyman before the accident,” said Luke, “and when I had the accident I knew instantly I was paralysed. The doctors didn’t say there was no chance of walking but they said there was a slim chance.

“It was really hard at the start, and I didn’t really know what to do. I was really fit and active, so to lose the use of my legs was tough.

“Early in my therapy, I put so much work in and didn’t see any return, and I could feel my hope just draining away. To make things worse, it was in the middle of lockdown, and I couldn’t see my family for months. That was really hard.”

Luke with his four children, and his wife Anna.

However, in September this year Luke became the first patient to receive treatment with the newly installed ZeroG Gait and Balance System, a robotic apparatus where a patient is supported during therapy, automatically synchronising with their movements to help them walk and prevent falls. It is the first of its kind in Scotland.

“Quite quickly I began to feel the benefits, and now there’s less pain, fewer spasms, I sleep better and I have lost weight. It’s also been huge for my mental health.

“It’s transformed my life and how I feel. I’ve gone from hardly being able to move to being able to walk 20 metres non-stop on the bars. My record on the ZeroG system is 57 metres!

“I’d love to keep improving but, to be honest, if I couldn’t achieve any more I’d be happy the way I am. Just to be able to stand, even if it’s with a frame, is amazing.

“If you’d asked me six weeks ago if I could even achieve that I’d have said don’t be daft. But now I can stand next to my kids.”

Claire Lincoln, Senior Research Physiotherapist at the QENSIU, is one of the team who use the ZeroG system to work with patients. She said: “There is an understanding that the more repetitions of a movement we can manage, the better the neurological recovery. Before we installed this system, we were often limited in the number of repetitions we could achieve, given that we needed up to four physiotherapists for any session, and the patient would quickly become fatigued.

“Now we can achieve so much more. We only need one physio to support a patient using ZeroG, and the patient can do a lot more before becoming too tired. The system also allows us to be more creative with the activities we undertake, which means the patient gets more enjoyment and satisfaction while also seeing additional benefit.

“We are still learning the full potential of the system, but because of the support and added safety it gives patients, already it’s allowed us to try therapies earlier than would have been possible before.

“We have so many more options. We’re not necessarily doing anything different, but it allows us to try things in a different way.”

Luke and physiotherapist Claire Lincoln during a ZeroG session.

Consultant in Spinal Injuries Dr Mariel Purcell is lead clinician at the unit and director of medical research. She said: “When the unit first opened 30 years ago, a lot of the patient we saw were completely paralysed, from the neck or waist down. Now we are seeing different types of injuries, and more patients have the potential to get back on their feet.

“We used to see a lot of young males, who had perhaps been in a car crash or suffered an industrial accident, but the advances in safety – seat belt wearing and health and safety laws – have made a real difference.

“Now we are seeing damage that isn’t as bad, and we’re seeing older patients who have experienced lower-velocity injuries. This gives us a real chance to help these patients – and the ZeroG system will be instrumental in this work.”

Luke has a wife, Anna, and children Anna, 8, Chloe, 6, Mary, 4, and Isaac, 3, and they have been his inspiration and support.

“They have kept me going – especially my wife. I don’t know how I would have managed without her. I’ve had some really dark times, but now I can look forward with real hope.

“The dream would obviously be to walk my girls down the aisle, so I’m going to keep going, to keep trying, for Anna and all my children. I mean, look what this system has done for me up to now – you never know what further advances are round the corner.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s been tough, and the future is daunting, but the team here have been amazing, and I know they’ve got my back.”

Since September, Luke has been involved in one of two research studies using the ZeroG system.

The first is eWalk – which Luke is involved with – which involves patients with an chronic incomplete spinal cord injury (which means there is some function below a patient’s injury), who have been living with their injury for at least a year. They receive intensive walking training with body weight support from the ZeroG system, alongside spinal cord stimulation.

The second also involves patients with acute incomplete spinal cord injury. It involves an addition 12 hours of therapy on the ZeroG system every week, over and above their usual care.

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