He is known as the “Bionic Man” to children in his church and around his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. Rod Hanson, 71, sure seems endowed with high-tech powers when you look at the laundry list of his volunteer jobs. He is the treasurer, youth director, a deacon, and missionary housing director of a local Baptist church with more than a thousand members. A couple of times a week, he drives a friend around who is blind and tunes pianos in people’s homes. He travels to help advise other patients who have similar muscle-control challenges to his. On top of all that, he and his wife undertake missionary trips with the church, like a recent trek to New York City to help with repairs to a church.
Rod credits much of his newfound exuberance to the funny gadget attached to his left leg, a computer-embedded brace called the Sensor Walk™ Electronic KAFO, manufactured by the Duderstadt, Germany–based company Otto Bock. The device provides firm stability when Rod is ready to step down, and allows him to bend his leg when he is ready to lift it up. It has an onboard 12-hour lithium-ion battery and electronic sensors located in the footplate.
“When I pick up my foot, it releases the joint, so I can walk like a normal person,” he says with a gentle South Carolina accent. “Isn’t that neat? I tell you what. I was so excited when they first showed it to me that I called my wife from the clinic to tell her. It’s just been a godsend.”
Three years ago, Rod moved hesitantly and only with a walker, which seriously cramped his style. He had just completed his fifth back surgery. The good news: he was finally without pain for the first time in decades. The bad: the surgery damaged nerves in his leg so that he couldn’t bear weight on it without a brace. But the typical brace wasn’t working for Rod, so his physical therapist tapped the expertise of a Hanger Clinic orthotist who had just attended a class on the new Sensor Walk. It was only available in the United States and had only one other user in the entire country. Learning that Rod was game to try anything that could help, the clinician took a mold of his leg, ordered the device, and adjusted it to his frame. Rod walked between parallel bars and then outside on the grass the day the Sensor Walk came in, and has been moving easily with a cane ever since.
Rod does a lot more than he thought possible. He cuts the grass around his home, plays with his three-year-old grandson constantly, and performs small repairs on his home, as well as the missionary housing kept by the church. Rod credits his wife, Jackie, who is nearing retirement as a customer service representative, as an active partner in his recovery. When Jackie recently found out through neighbors that her husband had been doing roof repairs while she was away, she wisely counseled her bionic man to stick to tasks on firm ground. Everything else, she says, is fair game.