The exoskeletons could also reduce the cost to treat common maladies for someone in a wheelchair. Contreras-Vidal said a 35-year-old who becomes a paraplegic could generate $3 million in lifetime expenses for treatment and care. Costs can reach $5 million for younger people and could grow with life expectancies, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center.
The center reports there are about 12,000 new cases of spinal cord injury a year, and up to 332,000 living with an injury. A new study from the Johns Hopkins University found that injuries are on the rise and the leading cause is no longer car crashes, but falls, primarily among older people.
The Veterans Administration has been experimenting with the suits to help service members injured in war. Maryland Rehab & Ortho clinicians visited a hospital in the Bronx, N.Y., to see ReWalk in action before buying in. Maryland now has two $80,000 machines and plans to acquire two more for research.
Maryland officials also considered an exoskeleton developed by Berkeley, Calif.-based Ekso Bionic, which is used by Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.
NASA is testing a suit called X1 developed with the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. It could help astronauts with both surface exploration and exercise when there is no gravity or resistance against leg movements.
Still, the exoskeletons aren't for everyone. Dr. Henry York, director of the spinal cord unit at the Maryland rehab facility where Turnage is treated, said many suits like ReWalk require upper body strength and coordination for crutches. And at first, he wasn't sure Turnage could use one with her prosthetic leg, which wasn't designed for weight.
But her health was good and her will was strong, so York said he didn't want to say no.
Turnage couldn't be happier that she got a chance. Her 7-year-old daughter, Mikaela, has already seen her walk. And on Friday, she expects to stand and give her husband, Gabriel, a hug. He's in the military and has been traveling for much of her therapy, though they live on base at Fort Meade.
The family moves to Tennessee next month, and Turnage said she will continue to live a full life filled "with joy" without walking. She is a wife and mother, and for now, a part-time student studying cybercrime and a full-time administrative worker at a health care firm. There are travel and sports, much of which she began after coming to Maryland last year to ask about new research on treatments for spinal cord injuries.
She would still like to try sky diving. But what she really wants to do sometime soon is "go for a walk with my family."