Mind boggling. That’s how Stan Gorlitsky tries to sum up the feeling he has watching his 29-year old son, Adam Gorlitsky, stand and walk. That’s because Adam Gorlitsky is one of approximately 150,000 American paraplegics, according to figures from UAB’s National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center.
On Saturday, using a ReWalk Personal Exoskeleton system, Gorlitsky will take his place among an expected 30,000 participants in South Carolina’s Cooper River Bridge Run, one of the country’s largest 10-kilometer races.
“I love challenging myself,” Gorlitsky said on Monday morning at Charleston’s Pivotal Fitness, one of two gyms at which he has trained since receiving his personal exoskeleton on Dec. 30, 2015. “You know, a lot of people say you’re changing the world and stuff. I initially did this just to change my world. I wanted to change my world and then hopefully through that, I could touch other people’s worlds, too. I think that’s my main message.”
It’s a message Gorlitsky is seeking to share through I Got Legs, a 501c3 non-profit organization he started just two months ago.
“It initially started out as just like a slogan of empowerment for me, to motivate and inspire me,” Gorlitsky explained. “Our purpose and mission is to create a safe environment that both empowers and connects people of all disabilities to their friends and family. We want to bridge the gap between what it means to be able-bodied and disable bodied.”
Bridging that gap will be Gorlitsky’s primary focus in the months ahead. Tackling the challenge of navigating the Arthur Ravenel Bridge, a four-kilometer long cable-stayed bridge separating Mount Pleasant from neighboring Charleston, has required almost all of Gorlitsky’s focus since July.
“Yeah, why not?”
Gorlitsky, a Charleston native, has spent lots of time at the city’s Center for Spinal Cord Injury, a community collaboration between Roper Rehabilitation Hospital, the Medical University of South Carolina, Carolinas Rehabilitation and the Spinal Cord Injury Research Fund. It’s served as a home away from home since Gorlitsky severed his T9 vertebra – permanently paralyzing him from the waist down — in a December 2005 car accident. It’s also where his life began to change last July.
“I went for an annual checkup in July and they said ‘Hey, you wanna try it out? – we think you’d be a perfect candidate,’” Gorlitsky recalled. “So I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’”
“It” is the ReWalk Rehabilitation System, a battery-powered, wearable exoskeleton system with motors at the hip and knee joints. Its monitored use is available in only 35 rehab hospitals across the United States. It weighs 60 pounds and allows for user-initiated mobility through the integration of a wearable brace support, a computer-based control system and motion sensors. Through repeated body shifting, Gorlitsky and others like him can generate a sequence of steps that mimic a functional natural gait of the legs.
The contraption was not completely foreign to Gorlitsky. Shortly after his injury, the then 19-year old University of South Carolina student was told by doctors he would never walk again. He was also told there was technology in the works that could make exoskeletons a reality in 10 to 20 years. He’d even watched YouTube videos detailing the device’s use. None of that, though, could prepare him for actually using it.
“The second I stood up, I was like man, this is an incredible feeling,” Gorlitsky said. “Taking control of my legs is an amazing feeling. I guess originally, I just did it to get my mind off of things.”
A coasting period
By Gorlitsky’s own account, he had reached a coasting period in his life. That’s not to suggest he was idle. Hardly. He returned to driving a car in less than a year. He returned to South Carolina and completed his undergraduate degree in business retail in 2009. He helped his parents run their e-commerce company, AllergicPet.com.
He pursued his passion for storytelling by enrolling in filmmaking classes at Trident Technical College. He pursued it further by producing a show piece music video for the band Stop Light Observations. He just recently acquired the rights to a screenplay, Rose in the Darkness, through his production company and financing/studio Gorlitsky Group Productions. Nonetheless, Gorlitsky felt an impasse.
“I knew I was better than what I was doing,” Gorlitsky said. “I’m so independent in my chair. I was still kind of getting used to being in the chair. I guess part of the coasting period of my life was I became so adjusted to my wheelchair.”
“Then the second I stood up, I said ‘I gotta do the bridge run,’” Gorlitsky continued. “I’m a former athlete, a high school cross country and track runner. I guess I kind of lost touch with that side of myself, that physical competitiveness. I guess for whatever reason, the other sports, the other wheelchair sports, I didn’t necessarily (love). It felt good doing them but this feels different. I feel like I’m competing against able-bodied people.”
In order to compete in the Bridge Run, Gorlitsky had to acquire the ReWalk Personal Exoskeleton. One hurdle was cleared when the FDA approved the ReWalker for personal use, outside of rehab facilities, in June of 2014. Another hurdle was presented by its $83,000 cost. Gorlitsky cleared that by raising the money required for the $10,000 down payment through a GoFundMe website and the sale of ‘I Got Legs’ t-shirts. Ten years to the day of the accident that paralyzed him, following 50 hours of FDA mandated training, Gorlitsky received his personal exoskeleton from ReWalk Robotics representatives.
“It was a cool moment,” Gorlitsky said. “I’m having fun with it. In that process of having fun, I also want to be on the forefront of seeing where it could go.”
“Ironman meets Avatar”
As Gorlitsky acknowledges, the device is not for everybody. He fits the height and weight requirements, and has sufficient bone density and strong hands and shoulders to support the crutches he clasps onto. He’s worked to strengthen his core and make going the full 6.2 miles the Bridge Run covers a more realistic possibility. Still, he needs someone close by to support him whenever he puts it to use.
“I still can’t feel my legs so I can’t feel the ground that I’m walking on,” Gorlitsky said. “This technology, I describe it as Ironman meets Avatar. Right now, it’s probably more Ironman meets Terminator; probably more Terminator than Ironman at this point. But I’ve seen some really amazing things out there where it is gonna become more Avatar-like. When that happens, that’s gonna be amazing. Then it will really be able to replace my wheelchair.”
Whether that happens or not, it is likely Adam’s father, Stan Gorlitsky, will be at his side. Just like many mornings over the 123 months since Adam’s accident, Stan walked alongside him Monday at Pivotal Fitness. He describes the range of emotions that surround Adam’s journey as a celebration of the worst day of his life. He is happy; however, to describe the transformation he’s witnessed firsthand.
“Usually when they have this type of injury, the person who it happens to really goes downhill pretty quick – very depressing, they can’t take a hold of their life,” Stan Gorlitsky said. “To us, it was the opposite. He started to go through that, the grieving process, like anybody else. Going through it after ten years and seeing that it’s nothing more than adversity and him taking hold of it and making it better. That’s been a real eye opener. I’ve learned a lot about myself, and proud as hell of him.”
There are tears, but there is laughter also. Stan jokes the crying is automatic, but good for clearing the sinuses. Adam quips that his dad cries less and less with each passing interview. A sense of humor also led Adam to christen his ReWalker the Betty Carlton — Betty for his late great grandmother; Carlton for Carlton Banks, the character depicted by Alfonso Ribeiro on the 1990’s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
“He’s like one of my favorite TV show characters so I tell people the spirit of my great grandmother’s gonna help me do the Carlton dance,” Gorlitsky said.
Lots of people have helped Gorlitsky make a considerable dent in the tall task of paying off the remaining balance on his personal exoskeleton. He estimates that the sale of t-shirts, designed by local artist Jeff Fitzharris and available for $24.99 on IGotLegs.org, will account for almost 60 to 70 percent of total funds raised.
More can help on Thursday and Friday by visiting the Mercedes-Benz Vans charity beer garden at the Charleston Area Convention Center, site of the Bridge Run Expo. Mercedes selected I Got Legs, one of 16 sponsored Bridge Run charities, to receive all proceeds from beer sales.
“We need as many people to come to that charity beer garden and drink, and keep drinking,” Gorlitsky joked.
Gorlitsky and Carlton will have plenty of support when the race begins on Mount Pleasant’s Coleman Boulevard. Ten family members and close friends will encircle him, along with Marka Danielle Rodgers, a partially paralyzed former ballet dancer who is also attempting to walk the course.
He will set out about an hour-and-a-half ahead of the other competitors, and expects its entirety will take four-and-a-half to five hours. The device’s battery has a three to three-and-a-half hour lifespan, meaning an official from ReWalk will be on hand with a spare battery and another personal exoskeleton, just in case the machine falters as it has in the past.
Gorlitsky does not know if he will be able to complete the 10k —he estimates he’s gone as many as 2.5 miles at once before the battery topped out – but he does not doubt his endurance and strength. Those two qualities offer optimism for whatever the future may hold.
“I tell people that my injury affects me on a primary level but it affects everybody I come into contact with on a secondary level,” Gorlitsky said. “It’s just about creating the safe environment for people with disabilities and their friends and family where they can connect and share their stories. There’s a real power with just sharing your story with other people who are in the same situation. I look forward to focusing on that after this race.”
Above: Video produced by Jeremy Sullivan, athletics video coordinator at Charleston Southern University and a freelance videographer based in Charleston, S.C.
Middle and below: Adam Gorlitsky, assisted by his father Stan, works out as he gets used to his exoskeleton before the Cooper River 10k. (Photos courtesy Jeremy Sullivan)