Tech

An autonomous drone carrying an automated external defibrillator travels to a cardiac emergency in Sweden.

Everdrone

Picture this: your medical first responder descends from the sky like a friendly, unmanned starship. Hovering over your door, it drops a device with recorded instructions to help a bystander jumpstart your heart that has stopped. This, after the 911 call but before the ambulance arrives.

This is exactly what happened on Dec. 9, 2021, when a 71-year-old man in Sweden suffered a cardiac arrest while shoveling snow. A passerby, seeing him collapse, called for an ambulance. In just over three minutes, a drone swooped overhead carrying an Automated External Defibrillator (AED). The patient was revived on the spot before the ambulance arrived to rush him to the hospital where he made a full recovery. The revolutionary technology saved his life.

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Eve Glicksman
Eve Glicksman is a freelance writer and editor in the Washington, DC, area following a long career in Philadelphia. She writes for the health and science section of The Washington Post along with a mix of stories for other media and associations on trends, culture, psychology, lifestyle, business and travel. Previously, she served as a managing editor for UnitedHealth Group and the Association for American Medical Colleges. To see more of her work, visit eveglicksman.com. 
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Reporter Michaela Haas takes Aptera's Sol car out for a test drive in San Diego, Calif.

Courtesy Haas

The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."

If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.

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Michaela Haas
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an award-winning reporter and author, most recently of Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria). Her work has been published in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, and numerous other media. Find her at www.MichaelaHaas.com and Twitter @MichaelaHaas!

Puschel Sorensen undergoing physical therapy using Cyberdyne's hybrid assistive limb, left, and with her grandson while still in a wheelchair.

(Photo Credit: Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital)


Puschel Sorensen first noticed something was wrong when her fingertips began to tingle. Later that day, she grew weak and fell.

It picked up small electrical impulses on her skin's surface and turned them into full movement in her legs.

Her family rushed her to the doctor, where she received the devastating diagnosis of Guillain-Barré Syndrome -- a rare and rapidly progressing autoimmune disorder that attacks the myelin sheath covering nerves.

Sorensen, a once-spry grandmother in her late fifties, spent 54 days in intensive care in 2018. When she was finally transferred to a rehab facility near her home in Florida, she was still on a feeding tube and ventilator, and was paralyzed from the neck down. Progress with traditional physical therapy was slow.

Sorensen in the hospital after her diagnosis of Guillain-Barré syndrome.

(Photo Credit: Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital)

And then everything changed. Sorensen began using a cutting-edge technology called an exoskeleton to relearn how to walk. In the vein of Iron Man's fictional power suit, it confers strength and mobility to the wearer that isn't possible otherwise. In Sorensen's case, her device, called HAL – for hybrid assistive limb -- picked up small electrical impulses on her skin's surface and turned them into full movement in her legs while she attempted to walk on a treadmill.

"It was very difficult, but super awesome," recalls Sorensen, of first using the device. "The robot was having to do all the work for me."

Amazingly, within a year, she was running. She's one of 38 patients who have used HAL to recover from accidents or medical catastrophes.

Cyberdyne's hybrid assistive limb technology.

(Photo Credit: Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital)

"How do you thank someone for giving them back the ability to walk, the ability to live your life again?" Sorensen asks effusively.

It's still early days for such exoskeleton devices, which number perhaps a few thousand worldwide, according to data from the handful of manufacturers who create them with any scale. But the devices' ability to dramatically rehabilitate patients like Sorensen highlights their potential to extract untold numbers of people from wheelchairs, and even to usher in a new paradigm for caregiving – one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. economy.

"I've been a physical therapist for 16 years, and (these devices) help teach patients the right way to move in rehabilitation," says Robert McIver, director of clinical technology at the Brooks Cybernic Treatment Center, part of the Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital in Jacksonville, Fla, where Sorensen recovered.

Another patient there, a 17-year-old named George with a snowboarding injury that paralyzed his legs, was getting around with a walker within 20 sessions.

As patients progress in their recoveries, so does exoskeleton technology. Jack Peurach, CEO of Ekso, one of the leaders in the space, believes within a decade they could resemble an article of clothing (a "magic pair of pants" is his phrase). They also may become inexpensive and reliable enough to transition from a medical to a consumer device. McIver sees them eventually being used in the home on an ongoing basis as a personal assistive device, much like a walker or cane, to prevent falls in elderly people.

Such a transition "certainly could eventually lessen the need for caregivers," says Sharona Hoffman, a professor of law at Case Western University in Cleveland who has written extensively on aging and bioethics. "We have a real shortage of caregivers, so that would be a good thing."

Of course, having an aging and disabled population using exoskeletons in much the same way as an Apple Watch raises issues of its own.

Dr. Elizabeth Landsverk, a California-based geriatrician and founder of a company that performs house calls for elderly patients, believes the tech holds some promise in easing the burden on caregivers, who sometimes have to lift or move patients without assistance. But she also believes exoskeletons could become overhyped.

"I don't see robotics as completely replacing the caregiver," she says. And even if exoskeletons became akin to articles of clothing, she is skeptical of how convenient they could become.

"It's hard enough to get into support hose. Would an older person be able to get in and out of it on their own?" she asks, noting that a patient's cognitive levels could pose a huge barrier to donning such a device without assistance.

If personal exoskeletons did wildly succeed, Hoffman wonders whether they would leave the elderly more physically mobile yet also more socially isolated, since caregivers or even residing in an assisted living facility may no longer be required. Or, if they were priced in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, he worries that the cost would exacerbate social inequalities among the elderly and disabled.

"It's almost like a bad dream that [my illness] happened."

With any technology that confers superhuman ability, there's also the question of appropriate usage. Even the fictional Power Loader in the movie Alien required an operator's license. In the real world, such an approach would likely pay dividends.

"We would have to make sure physicians are well-trained in these devices, and patients have a way of getting training to operate them that is thorough and responsible," Hoffman says.

But despite some unresolved questions, it is a remarkable achievement to be able to give people back their lives thanks to new technology.

"It's almost like a bad dream that [my illness] happened," says Sorensen, who managed to walk in her daughter's wedding after her recovery. "Because now everything is pretty much back to normal and it's awesome."

Ron Shinkman
Ron Shinkman is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine publication Catalyst, California Health Report, Fierce Healthcare, and many other publications. He has been a finalist for the prestigious NIHCM Foundation print journalism award twice in the past five years. Shinkman also served as Los Angeles Bureau Chief for Modern Healthcare and as a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Business Journal. He has an M.A. in English from California State University and a B.A. in English from UCLA.