For Ajit Jogi, it's no less than a thrill to walk again
After being bound to a wheelchair for nearly nine years, Ajit Jogi took his first steps with the help of bionic supporters. R Krishna Das talks to the former Chhattisgarh chief minister about his new pair of 'e-legs'.
It was a momentous day for Ajit Pramod Kumar Jogi, the former chief minister of Chhattisgarh, on April 29. At Anugrah -- his residence in Raipur -- there was a festive spirit. With only family members and close aides watching, Jogi slipped into his newly acquired robotic device. When he finally stood up, his family members gaped -- they had forgotten how tall he was, having seen him seated in a wheelchair for nine long years.
Jogi fiddled with the control at his right hand, and hesitantly moved his legs. One step at a time, he walked about the room. When he stepped outside, there was a loud cheer from a large crowd of supporters. The beaming smile on Jogi's face was enough indication of the ecstasy at becoming ambulatory again.
It seemed after a lifetime that he was finally walking again. It had been a period of frustration for the politician, for what is a politician who cannot stand and speak? The robotic exoskeleton called Rex might earn him some stares, but the sheer ability to walk among the masses would compensate for everything else.
For Jogi, it was no less than a thrill to walk and celebrate his 68th birthday. "I am happy and excited to have the device and walk as I have tried all resources possible," he says. The day before he had spent five hours at the new cricket stadium in Raipur watching the Indian Premier League cricket match. But the tiredness did not show on his face. He appeared cheerful as he walked about.
Jogi, a former Indian Administrative Service officer of the 1971 batch, has been confined to a wheelchair since April 2004 when he met with a road accident during an election campaign. Whip-lash injury to the neck and serious damage to the spinal cord had left all his four limbs paralysed, severely affecting his rise as a key Congress politician.
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Image: Former chief minister of Chhattisgarh Ajit Jogi during an interview with Reuters in
Photographs: Kamal Kishore/Reuters
'Struggle second nature for me and I refuse to feel let down'
He wanted to walk again, but medical science could do so much and not more. So he hunted around for alternatives, even trying out stem-cell treatment. Then Jogi's personal physician for the last three decades, Allaudin Farishta, came to learn about e-legs through a magazine about three years ago. An American company and another based in Israel were manufacturing robotic legs that came with a computer-controlled device with in-built stability and safety mechanisms.
The former chief minister's initial optimism faded when the US and Israel companies expressed reluctance to help him. The Israelis said their product was meant for use only by soldiers disabled in wars. The Americans said they would not allow the device to go out of the US as they could not supervise it.
It wasn't easy becoming the first person in Asia to avail robotic technology for walking. "Struggle is second nature for me and I always refuse to feel let down," says Jogi. But this struggle -- to stand and walk on his own -- was challenging, he admits. The search for e-legs continued and finally ended in New Zealand with the discovery that Rex Bionics was manufacturing the device. Interestingly, a Chhattisgarh native was working for the New Zealand firm and helped to line things up. A senior doctor from Mumbai, Ashok Hishikar, was the main force behind convincing Rex Bionics to supply the device.
According to Farishta, the company asked them to bring the patient to New Zealand, which was very difficult due to Jogi's health condition. Fortunately, Hishikar convinced officials from Rex Bionics to visit Mumbai about a year ago to conduct the required tests.
Jogi took his first trial of the robotic legs last year in March in Mumbai and that enabled Rex Bionics to customise the system to his feet size. Powered by a battery, which can be easily charged at home, the electronic legs can aid a person walk for up to seven hours at a stretch. The company doctors and technicians landed in Raipur last week and completed the final process.
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Image: Former Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi
Photographs: Courtesy: http://womenhijjab.blogspot.in/
The device will allow Jogi to have normal leg movement
Given the weight of the device -- around 38 kg -- Jogi will need an assistant to slip into the e-legs, put on the straps and buttons. The legs have to be put on with Jogi in a seated position. It has a series of leg braces, straps and a harness. Once installed, Jogi can stand up. The control pad is on the right side over the stomach. The politician can operate the legs with the help of this pad and a joystick.
The e-legs can be packed in a special bag and carried in the car. While travelling, they must be removed as the user will not be comfortable while sitting. While Rex Bionics says that people can sit in a car with the exoskeleton on, Jogi prefers to travel without being cramped in.
The material used to fabricate Rex are lightweight, and include aluminium braces and leather straps. Jogi has been advised exercises to strengthen his muscles so that he can walk. The contraption itself is self-powered and does not need physical strength to move. Jogi goes for routine physiotherapy and other exercises.
"Initially, he will walk for short durations on trial basis and will slowly start using the Rex for longer periods," Farishta says. The device will allow Jogi to have normal leg movement which, in turn, would boost his morale and confidence, the doctor says. He adds that it would also reduce the pain besides improving bowel and bladder movements and enhance blood circulation.
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Photographs: Adrian Malloch/rexbionics.com
The pair of 'e-legs' costs a little more than Rs 1 crore
After the road accident, Jogi vowed that his health would not hamper his political activities. "Within three months, I was back in the field in a wheelchair working for the party (Congress)," he says. Now, he will be able to stand for long hours and deliver a speech from a dais or in the Assembly in standing position.
The device will not affect his work in any way. In fact, it will only help to make it more effective, Jogi says. The only precaution that he will have to take is to avoid moving in the crowd. "Nothing can substitute a normal organ, but yes, the robotic legs are a great relief to me and are very easy to operate," he adds.
The e-legs have a state-of-the-art, highly engineered system with 27 on-board computer processors that control movement and balance through a joystick. This allows the user to direct the device to walk, turn and even climb slopes.
The equipment will cost a little more than Rs 1 crore. The family had to struggle to pay the company. "Rex Bionics asked me to pay 50 per cent of the amount in advance before the trials could be conducted," Jogi says. Another problem was that the money had to be paid in New Zealand dollars. The money was collected from among family members and the highest share was of Rs 5 lakh from a doctor in the family. "I owe it to all those who had contributed and I will return the money to them," Jogi says. He is entitled to have the expenses reimbursed from the Chhattisgarh government as he is a Member of the Legislative Assembly (he represents Marwahi constituency), he adds. But the state government did not respond to his application and reminders for financial assistance.
Chief Minister Raman Singh had announced after the accident (in 2004) that the state government would bear all the expenses for his treatment, Jogi says, and he must abide by that announcement. "I have all the rights to get the bills reimbursed and I will get it done," he adds.
So the fight continues.
Image: Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh