KEARNEY — Tammy Lawter struggled to hold back tears.
Paralyzed from the chest down 25 years ago, she slowly took her first steps this summer with the assistance of a device called an Indego Exoskeleton.
“I couldn’t feel my legs, so it was kind of weird, but it felt really good,” she said. “It was tempting to stare at my feet to see if they were moving. I was trying hard not to cry, but if I cried, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see.”
It was a life-changing moment for Lawter, director of Kearney’s Friends Program and a U.S. Army veteran. When she brings home her own Indego Exoskeleton later this year, it will allow her to do ordinary things like stand at the stove to cook, stand at the sink to wash dishes, and walk in the winter at Hilltop Mall.
“It gets old and tiring sitting in a chair all day,” she said. “This is an opportunity to stand up and walk and improve my health while doing it.”
It all began at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in 2018 when, at an expo, Lawter saw a man who had been paralyzed for 28 years walking with the assistance of a ReWalk device. The ReWalk provides battery-powered hip and knee motion that allows a person to stand up and walk.
Instantly, she knew it was something she had to try.
‘A death grip’
With permission from the VA hospital in Grand Island, Lawter tried the ReWalk at the Veterans Administration Hospital last year in Minneapolis, where she is treated for her spinal cord injuries. She did not have enough bone density to use the 78-pound ReWalk, but she qualified to try the Indego Exoskeleton, an alternative, which weighs just 28 pounds.
She returned to Minneapolis in July for the three-to-five week training session on the Indego Exoskeleton. She spent the first day learning how to put on its five pieces. “Everything in the military is made for men, so they had to do a lot of adjustment because I had hips. The company had to redo some of the pieces,” she said.
Then, assisted by two physical therapists, she practiced standing up and sitting down. “The robot has a vibration, so when I stand up, I have to lean forward and wait three seconds as it vibrates. Then the machine will stand you straight up,” she said. “But there are different vibrations. If I lean too far forward, I fall forward.”
Because she was injured so badly in 1994, her balance is off-kilter, and she had not walked in so long that walking was new to her. “I had a death grip on the walker. I thought I’d fall forward. I had to learn that I could actually hold onto the walker and move,” she said.
The next day, she relaxed a bit and was able to walk 193 steps from the physical therapy room down the hallway and back to the room. She fought back tears. “It was a wonderful feeling to take those steps,” she said.
The next day, more adjustments were necessary, so she took just 53 steps, but she was mastering the machine quickly and hoped to take it home. Then came a setback. After lunch, she noticed a lump the size of a goose egg on her ankle. Doctors discovered an old fracture. They put her foot in a boot that she will wear for four weeks, so the Indego device is on hold for now. She returned to Kearney last week.
“When it heals, I’m going back up there,” she said. “By the end of the year, I’m going to do the training and bring that device home. I feel really blessed that I can do this.”
She eagerly anticipates its benefits. “It will be nice to be a little higher. It’ll be nice to do a few dishes and reach all the dusty places that nobody wants to reach,” she said. “I want to be able to go to the grocery store and reach up. All the items that were at chest level before my accident are way up high now. I will be able to reach up and grab them.”
The device’s battery has a span of between eight and 10 hours. It is recharged by plugging it into a socket. The VA will pay its $60,000 cost.
A military career
Born in Fort Morgan, Colo., Lawter grew up in Kearney and graduated from Kearney High School in 1984. She went to Kearney State College on a swimming scholarship, but after two years, she joined the U.S. Army and spent two years on active duty at Fort Stewart, Ga.
The day she was discharged, she joined the South Carolina Army National Guard for four years. At the University of South Carolina at Spartanburg, she earned a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies with a focus on math, political science, sociology and business administration.
Upon graduation, she was also commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army’s Medical Service Corps and expected to make the military her career. “I like helping people, and I thought if I ever left the service, there would always be jobs available in medicine,” she said.
Those plans were shattered in February 1994 when she was severely injured in a traffic accident in Florence, S.C. She was ejected from the vehicle, landed on her back and severed her spinal cord. Instantly, she became a paraplegic. She spent the next eight months in the hospital.
“It was hard to accept that I would never walk again. I had dedicated eight years to the military, and now I had to figure out what else I could do. I have a great support system with my family and friends, so I did not dwell on the negative. I just focused on finding something else I really liked doing,” she said.
Two therapists recommended that she participate in sports activity despite her injury. For Lawter, who played volleyball and softball and ran track in high school, this was good news.
After being released from the hospital in late 1994, Lawter was headed home to Nebraska when she stopped to watch the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Kansas City. Each year, 700 veterans from the U.S., England, Puerto Rico and Guam compete in 21 events.
“Everyone was having a good time,” she said. She had heard about the games’ basketball and wheelchair races, but not the 19 other events.
The following summer, Lawter began competing at the NVWG and does so every year. She now focuses on 9-ball pool, shot put, discus, javelin and power lifting. In 1995, just 15 women competed among 400 men, but 150 women participate now, she said. Since 2013, the Challenge Athlete Foundation/Operation Rebound has sponsored her participation.
She also attends the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic every year. At home, she stays fit by lifting weights and using a stationery hand cycle.
Lawter, mother of two grown sons, will bring home her Indego Exoskeleton from Minneapolis later this year. “Whether it’s me or a robot walking or standing, I don’t care,” she said. “When I stand up and I can talk to people face to face, it feels normal. Being able to do something without the wheelchair makes me feel like everyone else again.”