I'm very excited for veterans to experience Indego.

Clare Schuster Hartigan '86

When you've lost the use of your legs — perhaps from a spinal cord injury, brain trauma or a neurological illness like multiple sclerosis — the hope that someday, somehow, you will walk again always shimmers in the distance. Now, that possibility is advancing rapidly, thanks to robotic exoskeletons like one being developed by physical therapist Clare Schuster Hartigan '86, an expert in human locomotion, and her team in Atlanta.

Movement has always mattered to Hartigan. A scholar and swimming star from little Fredonia, N.Y., she had her pick of athletic scholarships. "Bucknell was extremely generous" with its offer of a four-year full ride, she says. It took a visit to campus to seal her decision: Bucknell just felt right.

Hartigan threw herself into a demanding major (biology), Greek life (Alpha Chi Omega) and a record-breaking career on the Bison varsity swim team (butterfly and individual medley). She graduated cum laude, earning an East Coast Athletic Conference medallion for the highest GPA among senior female athletes at Bucknell.

After receiving a master's in physical therapy at Emory University, Hartigan joined the Shepherd Center, a small, nonprofit rehabilitation and research hospital in Atlanta renowned for treating spinal cord and brain injuries.

In 2009 the center, with Hartigan as clinical team leader, began testing and refining a lightweight exoskeleton developed by Vanderbilt University's Center for Intelligent Mechatronics. The product, Indego, now is owned by Parker-Hannifin Corp. It received FDA approval in March. Although several exoskeletons had previously won FDA approval, Indego is exceptional, Hartigan says, for its light weight and ease of use.

Besides longed-for independence, just standing upright aids patients with physical therapy and overall health. Paraplegics and even quadriplegics, some of whom haven't walked in decades, find it an emotional experience. With Indego's robotic legs strapped around their waist and legs they lean slightly forward to start and then, astoundingly, they're walking, haltingly, gripping a walker
or forearm crutches for balance.

This year the Veterans Administration will begin buying FDA-approved exoskeletons for qualifying veterans. "I'm very excited for veterans to experience Indego," Hartigan says.