Captain Trevor Greene partners with SFU to walk again

September 17, 2015

Former Canadian soldier Trevor Greene, who survived a debilitating brain injury while on duty in Afghanistan in 2006, has recovered his ability to walk again with the help of a customized exoskeleton, his personal determination, and support of researchers at Simon Fraser University.

Greene demonstrated his progress on Sept. 17 at the Surrey campus.

Told he would likely never walk again after a vicious axe attack, Greene began working with Ryan D’Arcy, a neuroscientist and SFU professor, in 2009. D’Arcy became involved with Greene’s recovery after watching a documentary about him.

He asked Greene to partner with him in a research project to explore how brain plasticity affects motor functions. Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize its neural pathways and synapses in response to different behaviours, thoughts or emotions.

The two have since met regularly for D’Arcy to collect functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of Greene’s brain, which D’Arcy uses to track how the brain rewires itself.

In an article published in The Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation this month, D’Arcy and his research team challenge the current assumptions that after a traumatic brain injury, any further recovery ceases to happen over the long term. His team discovered physical functions can be recovered through rehabilitation even six years after an injury.

In 2014, D’Arcy called on Carolyn Sparrey, a professor in the School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering (MSE) who has extensive experience in biomechanics, to see if she could customize an exoskeleton that would suit the unique requirements of the 6’4” Greene.

Exoskeletons are typically designed for those with spinal cord injuries as an assistive robotic technology providing lower leg movement. Sparrey notes that this is the first time exoskeleton technology has been used for a person with a brain injury.

Today, Greene is able to walk upright with assistance, outfitted with a custom-made exoskeleton from Israel-based company, ReWalk. In the future he plans to walk unassisted. Ultimately, he says his goal is to make it to Everest base camp.

A ReWalk company trainer has supported Greene by customizing the motorized exoskeleton so that Greene can wear the battery pack as a backpack.

“Trevor has been extremely committed to his rehabilitation program,” says D’Arcy, who is also co-chair of Innovation Boulevard.

Greene’s positive attitude was never more poignantly demonstrated than when he stood, using parallel bars, at his 2010 wedding to wife Deborah.

“This newest dimension in his rehabilitation, wearing exoskeletons to walk again, enables SFU faculty members to track research milestones in a real-life scenario while making a positive impact on his life,” says D’Arcy.

Joy Johnson, SFU’s vice-president, research, says: “This is such a heartwarming story of courage and determination, and of the power of collaboration to push beyond seemingly impenetrable boundaries. This is why SFU places such value on interdisciplinary research and open innovation—they help turn ideas into action, so that people may benefit.”

The Royal Canadian Legion raised funds for the ReWalk device. SFU investigators are donating their time, expertise and specialized equipment to assist with the project.

Other SFU researchers involved in the Trevor Greene exoskeleton research project are SFU engineering professor Carlo Menon, and mechatronics engineering professors Edward Park and Siamak Arzanpour.