Paralyzed Long Island Man Uses Motorized Exoskeleton to Walk Again

A Long Island man enjoyed his first walk on a Manhattan sidewalk in nearly five years with the help of a biometric exoskeleton.

Tom Ball, of Farmingdale, took a short walk on 38th Street earlier this month with the help of a motorized exoskeleton being tested by New York University’s Langone Medical Center. The prosthetic is still in the testing phases, but Ball said he hopes that one day the device will allow him to walk his daughter down the aisle -- a dream he thought he would have to give up when he was paralyzed in a work accident in 2009.

“I hope I can walk my daughter down the aisle when she gets married,” he said. “And that's what I want to do.”

Ball, a third-generation iron worker whose grandfather was featured in a famous photograph atop the then-under construction RCA Building (now named the GE Building) in 1932, was paralyzed in 2009 while working on a project in the Bronx. He said he was pulling a steel beam when another fell, severing his spine and paralyzing him at the waist. 

“I knew there was something wrong because I didn't feel anything,” he said.

Doctors told Ball he’d never walk again after the accident. He put on a rubber bracelet that reads “Never give up” two days after he was hospitalized, and worked hard to maintain his old routine, going to the gym daily, playing basketball and staying active -- even riding waves on a modified surf board.

"You can give yourself 10 minutes of self-pity in the morning, then I just get up and get my day going," he said.

Still, he said, it’s the mundane things he used to do every day that he misses the most.

“I can't mow the lawn, I can't take care of the pool, I can't be the handyman,” he said. “I gotta rely on my wife and kids to do everything.”

Recently, Ball joined a medical trial for the exoskeleton, which is called the Indego. The device, which is motorized and partially encases a user's legs in metal support beams, allows Ball to stand up straight. If he leans forward just a bit, the prosthetic begins to take steps for him. 

"What else do I have to lose? Let me give it a shot," Ball said, remembering his decision to volunteer for the trial.

Ball said that when he began the trial, he could only walk about 13 steps. But after months of practice, he can take thousands. And on Dec. 11, he did something he hasn’t done since before the accident -- he took a walk on the busy streets of New York City.

NYU officials say that the device hasn’t been approved by the FDA yet, and it’s not clear if or when it will be available to the public. But, for at least this holiday, it gives Ball some hope that he can give his daughter away at her wedding.

“I have a good shot at doing it,” he said. “A real good shot.”

Contact Us