Copper Country veteran learns to walk with robotic exoskeleton

HOUGHTON — A Copper Country man is taking some steps toward mobility thanks to advancements in the field of biomechanics. Dean Juntunen is a 59 year old Mass City man who lost the use of his legs nearly 3 decades ago. Today, he publicly demonstrated his ability to walk with the use of an exoskeleton robot. The robot was furnished by the Milwaukee Veteran’s Administration as part of an outreach program.

It looks like something out of a 1990’s science fiction movie.

“So right now what I’m doing is strapping myself into this exoskeleton and I tell the robot to walk and then it starts stepping and it’s mindlessly stepping along,” said Dean Juntunen, a retired Air Force Captain. “It’s more that I’m riding the robot than actually walking with it.”

Dean is one of more than fifteen veterans who are taking part in this study across the country.

“I liken it to an enabled body person learning to walk with stilts,” said Juntunen. “If you’re walking on stilts you have to ‘learn to feel the ground’ through that metal or wooden leg. That’s basically what I’m doing in the robot because I’m paralyzed from the chest down, so I have to feel the ground through the metallic robot leg.”

He was selected partly by his drive and determination. Joe Berman, the project manager for the Veteran’s Administration-Milwaukee told us what went into the process of choosing him.

“Dean’s name is one of several that were given to us by the spinal cord injury service chief, Dr. Ken Lee at the Milwaukee VA,” said Berman. “He was identified as someone who has been quite active since his injury, and in good health. He’s done 91 marathons in his hand cycle.”

Learning to walk with the device has required many trips to Milwaukee for Dean.  Today that training has come to the Copper Country and involves a few of his friends.

“Anyone who is using these devices at this time needs to have a companion to sort them when going over more difficult surfaces,” said Zachary Hodgson, an exoskeleton trainer that worked with Juntunen. “Also it just allows them and the user to have some ability to get out of the device in the case of an emergency.”

“He is lucky to have at least three of his kayaking buddies who are learning to assist him,” said Berman.

“They’re getting a little bit of training to be my aid,” added Juntunen. “They’re my back up.”

This particular device is not suitable for all, Dean’s individual condition makes him a prime candidate for the program.

He has all of the muscles from his rib cage and up,” explained Hodgson. “Really with this device, it’s really good if someone can use all of their hands, it they’ve got really strong shoulders. His injury level allows that and allows him to be up in the device.”

Dean sustained his injury in 1991, from a tree cutting accident, resulting in a 30 foot fall.

“He’s doing quite well. He’s probably a little over half way through the required number of sessions. He’s on track to be bringing the device home,” said Berman.

Dean says he expects that this technology will advance quickly and help many more people in similar circumstances.

“It’s a very sophisticated technology on one hand, but on the other hand, I think it’s in it’s infancy and the robotics will probably develop very rapidly over the next 5 to 10 years,” said Juntunen.