Tech Blog: Mother of UA Accounting Student with Cerebral Palsy Creates Exoskeleton to Help Him Walk Unassisted

Aug. 28, 2018

Watch the new episode of Invented Arizona, where we speak with Hermelinda Bristol about the exoskeleton device that she developed to help her son Jeffrey, who has cerebral palsy, to walk.

Jeffrey Bristol, an accounting student at the University of Arizona Eller College of Management, was just over two years old when he suffered his first brain hemorrhage. The second and most devastating hemorrhage occurred almost exactly one year later, leaving Jeffrey with cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects movement, muscle tone and motor skills.

For Jeffrey, the hemorrhage “deeply muted almost one hundred percent of the muscles throughout his entire body.”

After years of trying different therapies to help him walk, Jeffrey’s mother, Hermelinda, decided to take matters into her own hands.

“The one thing that kept eluding me was his whole core and being able to connect the top and the bottom because I knew he could stand. He could stand for hours! But he couldn’t take the step. So I was like, ‘I’ve got to find a way to give him the proper structured place that his brain can go ‘I did this before and I remember.'"

After 20 years and countless iterations, Hermelinda finally developed a non-motorized exoskeleton that integrates and supports multiple parts of the body simultaneously – the back, hips, legs, calves and feet – and keeps the body’s structure aligned and coordinated to help Jeffery walk more normally.

“Once I was able to isolate the powerhouse, the core of his body, I said ‘okay here is this really nice tight thing around you that is going to give you the opportunity to do it yourself within the confines of where your body normally did it before.’”

These modular pieces provided a simple structure that allowed Jeffrey to be up and walking within just a few days. Over time Jeffrey was able to walk unassisted while wearing the device and eventually Hermelinda and Jeffrey decided to begin removing modules, starting with the waist.

Take a closer look at the exoskeleton prototye and the College of Engineering team that built it.

In 2017 Hermelinda partnered with the College of Engineering to participate in Engineering Design Day, where six seniors in biomedical, materials science and mechanical engineering worked to adapt her design and develop a non-motorized exoskeleton that allows users to move and exercise their body parts independently while providing a system that helps develop a normal gait – all at a much lower cost than other exoskeleton products.

After seeing how the new device helped Jeffrey walk, Hermelinda was determined to see it benefit as many people as possible. To do so, she looked to Tech Launch Arizona, the office of the UA that commercializes inventions stemming from research. Although she is external to the University of Arizona, Hermelinda assigned the intellectual property to the University and began working with Bob Sleeper, Senior Licensing Manager for the College of Engineering, to boost the invention's impact.

Throughout all of their trials Jeffrey and Hermelinda have remained steadfast and now, with the strength and coordination he has built through using the system his mom invented, Jeffrey is shedding the exoskeleton and increasing his ability to walk using only system’s the foot plates, which allow him more easily to slide his feet along the floor as he takes each step.

Hermelinda says she has always known where she wanted to go and that was to help him get walking because “walking is freedom.”

“I’m grateful that I was the person and that God picked me. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been really, really hard," she said, "and I really hope it changes other people’s lives, I really do.”

Learn more about this technology:

UA18-185 Methods of Training Human Brain and Body to Walk Using Modular Unpowered Exoskeleton

Learn more about other related technologies:

UA17-145 Active Assist Elbow Orthosis

UA16-094 The Bed-Sled

Paul Tumarkin