DCU's Exoskeleton Programme - Deirdre's Story

Deirdre Heffernan, originally from Co. Mayo, lived a normal life in Dublin until she experienced a rare life-changing illness which left her in a wheelchair. Having become a frequent user of DCU’s exoskeleton suit, Deirdre describes the benefits she’s been experiencing.

“I worked in an engineering firm in Dublin until I went on holidays in March 2018. While holidaying in Gran Canaria, I became very sick and was rushed to hospital with complete organ failure. I stayed there for a month until I was airlifted to the Mater University Hospital where I stayed for a further 13 months.

Initially, the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me. My kidneys, liver and heart were failing and I lost all voluntary movement. After several months, I as diagnosed with pheochromocytoma, which is a tumor on the adrenal glands. Shortly after having one of my adrenal glands removed, I developed sepsis. The doctors had hoped all movement in my body would come back once I recovered, but unfortunately it hasn’t.

The movement in my upper body has since improved and strengthened, but it is still restricted. As for my legs, I can move them but I have no balance and can’t stand on my own, that’s why I use the wheelchair.

Becoming wheelchair-bound has affected every aspect of my life. I’ve had to quit my job in Dublin and move back home to Mayo where I live with my mother. I was always a very independent person, so I think losing my independence has been the hardest thing for me.

Once I left the Mater University Hospital in May 2019, I began rehab in Donnybrook. Unfortunately, the progress had been very slow and there were still no guarantees that I’d walk again. I was at the stage where I needed an extra boost of motivation to continue on, so being recommended to DCU’s Exoskeleton Programme came at exactly the right time.

I had researched the programme and the Exoskeleton suit, but nothing can prepare you for what the first session is like. Prior to using the Exoskeleton, I had walked short distances using a four-wheel walking aid, so walking for up to 45 minutes in the Exoskeleton was surreal. I felt physically exhausted but exhilarated after that first session. I’ve since completed 16 sessions walking in the Exoskeleton suit, and I’ve become much more physically and mentally stronger. I am so thankful for the opportunity to access the Exoskeleton suit.”

“The sessions really renew your hope of being able to walk independently. I feel privileged that I’m part of the life-changing programme.”

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