The moment a robotic exoskeleton hoisted Xavier Prater Horan into a standing position Monday afternoon at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center was one he had long awaited.
“All right, I’m ready,” he had told a team of physical therapists, family members and friends a few minutes earlier, after he was strapped snugly in the device, in a seated position. “It’s a little nerve-wracking with all you people around,” he joked.
There were a few false starts and some fine-tuning of the exoskeleton — what Horan, 33, called “a giant robot computer that’s reading my body.” Horan had suffered a spinal cord injury in a car crash in 1999, when he was a 16-year-old student at St. Michael’s High School, and was paralyzed from the chest down. With this device, he was going to walk.
One more try, and he was standing, with two crutches for support. He was sweating a little, but he was calm.
Emotion was palpable in the eyes of his mother, Kristena Prater, and his sister, Jasmine Martinez.
“How are you feeling?” asked Andy McCord of ReWalk Robotics, who was helping with the demonstration, which was part of a training session for two physical therapists at the hospital, Katie Edmiston and Stuart Carruthers.
“Good,” Horan said. And then he was walking down the hall, almost too quickly for loved ones and medical staff to keep up.
Considering it had been almost a year since Horan had walked in such a device, McCord said, “He is rocking it.”
The bionic suit had been sitting in a box in Horan’s garage for a month, waiting to be assembled. With help from the California-based Shoong Foundation right before Christmas, he was able to purchase the $80,000 device. And on Sunday evening, while they watched the Denver Broncos defeat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 in a room at the Hotel Santa Fe, Horan and his father, Kevin Horan, and McCord began building the machine.
Horan is only the second New Mexico resident to own a ReWalk exoskeleton, a fairly new technology that gained Food and Drug Administration approval in June 2014. Former Albuquerque Police Officer Jeremy Romero, injured on the job during a police-chase crash, was the first to have one in the state. Romero took his first steps in the machine last year.
Rosemary Shoong, who oversees the Shoong Foundation, was at the hospital Monday, watching Horan get outfitted in his new bionic suit. She had long been acquainted with his family through the Tessa Horan Foundation, run by Horan’s mother in honor of Horan’s sister Tessa, who died in 2006 from a shark attack while serving in the Peace Corps in Tonga. Monday’s event at Christus St. Vincent was her dream, Shoong said. She wasn’t being figurative.
“I woke up from a dream and saw him walking,” she said of Xavier Horan, and she immediately set out to ensure he had the means to get a ReWalk device.
Shoong, who now splits her time between Santa Fe and Nevada, sees the city as a potential destination where people with spinal cord injuries can come to find therapy and a sense of community. “It’s an isolating thing when you have an injury,” she said.
Horan shares her vision. He’s excited to have his own bionic device, but he also wants others with paraplegia to benefit from the technology. He’s working to raise awareness about the exoskeleton as a physical therapy tool for people with injuries like his, and he’s paired up with a friend from his high school days, CrossFit trainer Lorenzo Hernandez, to start a nonprofit to help people with a range of disabilities get fit.
Movement Unlimited, now based at Undisputed Fitness in the Railyard, will demonstrate the exoskeleton, along with several other high-tech strength-training devices, during a fundraiser Tuesday at the Hotel Santa Fe.
For Horan, Tuesday’s event is predominantly a chance to get the word out about the importance of moving. He touted the benefits of movement for people with spinal cord injuries: controlling weight, preventing muscle atrophy; improving blood circulation and digestion; and boosting confidence, mood and motivation.
“I need more than just physical therapy,” he said. “I want to sweat.”
“Going to the gym is kind of scary,” he added. “It’s intimidating for anybody — whether you’re skinny or fat or in a chair.”
He hopes Tuesday’s event will ease some of that fear for those who could benefit from Movement Unlimited’s technology, which he said is for “anyone who’s 7 to 97.”
One 7-year-old has indeed taken an interest. In March 2015, Valentino Rivera, then 6, suffered a spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury in a car crash in Española. His father, former Pojoaque Pueblo Gov. George Rivera, described his condition as incomplete quadriplegia. Valentino is regaining some feeling in all parts of his body, Rivera said, and he can take steps now, with help.
But it’s been tough for the boy, who was an athlete, a dancer and a straight-A student, Rivera said.
He said his son was a Pueblo hoop dancer and had begun to study hip-hop. “His dream is to dance again,” Rivera said.
Recently, the family met Horan, and they were encouraged by the program he and Hernandez are creating. They’ll be at Tuesday’s fundraiser, helping to demonstrate some of Movement Unlimited’s devices, though Valentino is too young to test-drive a ReWalk exoskeleton.
Horan recalled his first time walking in a similar device in September 2014 in San Francisco.
“It was scary,” he said. At 6-foot-3 and accustomed to sitting in a wheelchair for nearly 17 years, he said, he realized as he was standing in the bionic suit that it’s “a lot farther to fall down.”
Horan was never one to back down from a challenge. As a teen, he was an athlete. He played soccer and was into extreme skiing. Not long after his crash, he was determined to get back on the slopes through an adaptive ski program.
After he graduated from St. Michael’s High, Horan headed to California to pursue a career in the film industry and music production. He attended Santa Barbara City College and the University of California, Santa Barbara, and began working in sound. He started at the bottom — in the mail room — he said, but eventually worked his way into a sound editing job, which he held for 10 years.
He also took up adaptive surfing.
But two years ago, a surfing injury that led to a life-threatening bone infection forced him to halt his career and return to Santa Fe, where he has been recovering. Though he hasn’t been able to work, Horan hasn’t remained idle.
He reached out to Hernandez, 35, who had spent some time in prison after getting mixed up in the area’s drug culture. “He had been bedridden,” Hernandez said of Horan. “He saw I had changed my life, and he hoped I could help change his. … I was honored that he reached out to me.”
To get ready for the ReWalk robot, Horan had to get strong. Hernandez, who had no prior experience with paraplegic athletes, spent some time in a wheelchair, learning about the abilities of paraplegics and what they experience, and fine-tuning a workout program.
Now he’s got a whole class of “wheelchair athletes” — including Grey Debella, who has taken adaptive CrossFit to a competitive level. And through Movement Unlimited, Hernandez hopes to help more.
Frankie Tenorio, 24, might be one of them. He just moved to Santa Fe on Friday from Lake Tahoe, Calif., so he could be a part of the community that Horan, Hernandez and others are building. He also received an exoskeleton from the Shoong Foundation, and he’s hoping to start using it in about a month.
“I’m excited to see this robotics in action,” he said Monday, during Horan’s demonstration of the ReWalk machine. “I can’t wait to get in one myself.”