By CAITY COYNE
Wednesday was the first time in six years that Lyle Fleming was able to walk around his home, or his neighborhood, without a wheelchair.
The Chapmanville native was paralyzed from the waist down in 2013, after he fell from a utility pole while working as a lineman. For the past two months, he's been training with an exoskeleton as part of his physical therapy routine at First Settlement Physical Therapy, in South Charleston. Now, he gets to take it home to use daily.
"I don't know, maybe I'll go bowling or something," Fleming said, smiling. "It's not, well I won't be doing any marathons, but I can do things I haven't been able to in a while. Maybe it'll stick, maybe it won't, but it's an option I have now. Standing is an option."
The Indego exoskeleton, designed by an Ohio-based company of the same name, is a lightweight, bionic device that straps tightly around the torso, with rigid supports strapped to the legs that extend down to the feet. It is specifically for people who suffer from spinal injuries, and it can aid them in walking for hours at a time.
Fleming is the first person to receive one of these exoskeletons in West Virginia, but that may be changing as more and more people find out about the technology. Already, another patient at First Settlement is being trained on the exoskeleton, said Kate Addis, a doctor of physical therapy and Indego instructor.
Since April 30, 2013, when Fleming suffered his injury, there have been good days and bad days, he said.
"You take every day as it comes. You never know what the hard times are going to be until they're there," Fleming said. "Every day is a new battle, and you've got to learn to be independent. Being around good people, compassionate people, that makes it a bit better."
He began attending physical therapy at First Settlement - roughly an hour and a half from his home in Chapmanville - because it was the only facility that his workers' compensation fund would cover, and it offered water therapy, which is exercising in a pool.
"That was the best thing I could have done at the time, mentally and physically," Fleming said. "In the water, you can feel things move that you can't out of it. You're lighter, so your legs, they flow with the water."
While Charleston is a bit of a drive to make from Chapmanville and back three days a week, Fleming said he doesn't mind the distance, because of the care he receives. After years of therapy, Fleming said his therapist, Trevor Shamblin, and others at First Settlement have become like family to him.
"It's been years, and I've gotten close to them, more than just, you know, doing my treatments," Fleming said. "That makes it easier - really liking the people you're working with. And this is like my job. If you don't like your co-workers, your day's always longer. I like my days."
A few months ago, Fleming mentioned the exoskeletons he had seen to Shamblin after one of their sessions together. Shamblin began calling others he knew practicing physical therapy, and they all recommended Indego.
So he called Stefan Bircher, manager of global market development at the company.
"I told him that Lyle was the patient he needed for this, that he would be the best," Shamblin said.
Bircher and others at the company agreed, and Fleming began training on the exoskeleton as soon as he could.
Addis, who trained Fleming on how to use and operate the contraption, said it works kind of like a Segway scooter, but with legs.
"You lean forward, just like you would if you wanted to start moving forward on a Segway, and the more you lean, the more you're going to move," Addis said.
Fleming said learning to control the exoskeleton wasn't error free. There were a few trips and stumbles as he adjusted to the rhythm of the steps, but nothing could beat the feeling of just standing up again.
"People take that for granted, take a lot for granted," Fleming said. "I'm lucky, though. I can't imagine how a blind person would feel, never seeing the light of day. I might not ever run or something like that, but I can walk. I can stand."
For Fleming, the most important part of this process was educating people who might be in a similar situation that there are options out there they can explore.
"People don't understand - it's physical, but you do get depressed. And depression, that's what kills. People want to help you, and it's from a good place, but sometimes, you want to help yourself," he said. "That's part of feeling wanted, feeling human: being able to do things for yourself, and this - I can do some of those things now probably. I can be more of myself."
To learn more about Indego exoskeletons, or to see who may qualify to try one, visit http://indego.com.