A mile-long race might not sound like much to some — but for five survivors who are relearning how to walk, it’s a hard-won triumph.
The New Balance 5th Avenue Mile will host nearly 8,000 runners from around the world Sunday in Central Park, including boldface names such as CBS Sports Radio host and former NFL running back Tiki Barber, Olympic medalist and seven-time 5th Avenue Mile champ Jenny Simpson and author Brittany O’Neill, whose life inspired the movie “Brittany Runs a Marathon.”
But for the first time this year, a group of five people with spinal-cord injuries (SCIs) will face the finish line together thanks to their bionic “exoskeletons.”
These devices function as a structural support system for paraplegics, allowing them to stand and, eventually, walk upright. More than just an elaborate crutch, the robotic skeleton does the work of hips and knees when motors are kicked into gear based on the walker’s center of gravity. Similar to hoverboard technology, the system detects the tilt of the upper body, signaling the motors to crank in time with the wearer’s natural gait.
The race takes place along a 20-block stretch on the east side of Central Park and is divided into 24 mile-long races, or “heats.” Each heat spotlights a team of runners from various organizations, including the FDNY and NYPD, NYC media companies — and, for the first time, the “exoskeleton” crew.
“We are very proud of them and their dedicated efforts to reach the goal of walking a mile in less than 60 minutes,” Dr. Ann M. Spungen, vice chair of the rehabilitation department at Mt. Sinai and exoskeletal research program director at James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx, tells The Post. “While that may not sound like much, it is an impressive feat for someone with paralysis.”
The FDA-approved technology can cost upwards of $100,000, and not all insurance companies consider the device indispensable for their customers, according to a CBS News report from 2018. However, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced in 2015 plans to implement an initiative to provide exoskeletons to qualifying veterans and set up certified training facilities across the country — a program from which a few of the 5th Avenue Mile runners with SCIs have benefited.
The 5th Avenue Mile begins at 7:25 a.m. Sunday, with the “exoskeleton specialty heat” kicking off at 10:20 a.m. on the west side of 5th Avenue between 81st and 82nd Streets. Read on to learn more about these inspiring bionic athletes.
Theresa Hannigan, 65
She’s a swimmer, skier and a top-ranking curling champ who doesn’t let her progressive sarcoidosis keep her down. “I don’t sit around,” Hannigan, a born-and-bred Long Islander, tells The Post.
As an Army sergeant, she came in contact with chemicals that damaged her immune system, leading to her diagnosis in her late 20s. By 2011, she could no longer walk. Her doctors at the Bronx VA medical center wanted her to try an exoskeleton, but she wasn’t healthy enough to be a candidate. After a few months of getting fit, she was chosen to give the device a test run.
“Before I knew it, I was standing up and walking,” she says.
These days, she gets to travel the world with Ditto — the name she gave to her exoskeleton in honor of her twin sister — demonstrating the technology for hospitals and other groups. She even showed off her wares in 2013 to then-President Obama, who she says asked her “What’s in it for you?”
Hannigan’s motivation, she told him, is for doctors to eventually be able to develop the exoskeletons for kids, and “let that child be able to go out and play in the schoolyard.”
Joseph Bailey Jr., 66
A fall from a ship as a young man left this Navy veteran from Tucson, Ariz., with limited mobility on the left side of his body for years, until 2002, when he had corrective surgery that helped him regain some movement in his leg. While he also gets around in a power wheelchair, he started working with an exoskeleton last year thanks to the VA initiative and Mt. Sinai’s research partnership.
When he isn’t building houses with Habitat for Humanity, leading therapy horses with Therapeutic Riding of Tucson (TROT), or riding with his local Buffalo Soldiers chapter, this serial volunteer is educating folks across the country about his exoskeleton.
“I’m here to display these legs … to the rest of the world [and show] that there are people inventing these things,” says Bailey. “This isn’t RoboCop!” He takes a lot of pride in his role as test-driver, “knocking out any kinks” to help improve the system.
“We are hoping that … maybe there’s going to be a soldier out there in the field, and he’ll be able to put [the exoskeleton] on and walk.”
Ian Delaney, 34
A former volunteer firefighter and Marine lance corporal, Ian Delaney was deployed from 2005 to 2006, and again in 2007 — an experience that left him with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. But it wasn’t until July 15, 2015, when two armed men broke into Delaney’s home in Syracuse that “everything changed” for him. He was shot in the chest after an unsuccessful attempt to disarm one of the intruders, resulting in paralysis of his lower body.
Delaney’s exoskeleton isn’t just helping him get from here to there, adding that he’s also benefited from improved digestion, mental health, circulation and posture. Thanks to his robotic legs, he’s regained a sense of “normalcy.” Adds Delaney, “I am accomplishing well over 10,000 steps per week.”
Marcial Garcia, 33
Yonkers resident Marcial Garcia was paralyzed from the chest down while on the job in 2007, but he’s just “happy to be alive,” he says. After enrolling in an exoskeleton-assisted walking study with Mt. Sinai, he decided to take part in the race to “show the world that life does not stop after [an SCI].” The former landscaping company supervisor says being a part of this research team gave him a reason to “keep going forward … without fear and without excuses” which might keep him from achieving his goals.
“I am very happy and proud of myself for being able to enjoy every moment and challenge that is presented to me.”
Avni Jahjaga, 46
From war-torn Kosovo, Avni Jahjaga was involved in an accident 20 years ago that left him paralyzed. Now a Bronx resident for the past 13 years, he’s been in exoskeleton clinical studies at the VA’s Spinal Cord Damage Research Center for four years now, which keeps him busy with physical therapy. When he’s not contributing to the study, Jahjaga says, “I love to rock climb and tap dance [at] the Mt. Sinai Rehab Hospital.” He says his participation in this Sunday’s race proves he’s turned “the meaning of ‘impossible’ into ‘I’m possible.’ “
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