May 1, 2011

NEW ZEALAND: Back on his feet - after 31 years

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand / Sunday Star Times / May 1, 2011

By Nicola Abercrombie

MORE THAN 30 years after a diving accident confined him to a wheelchair, a former Paralympian has the chance to walk his daughter down the aisle, thanks to a pair of bionic legs.


David MacCalman is the first in the world to own a pair of Rex bionic legs, invented in New Zealand and unveiled by Prime Minister John Key last July.

The 193cm MacCalman says the opportunity to stand again has been overwhelming.

"The intimacy and opportunities are endless. My daughter is 17 and there's the potential to walk her down the aisle.

"At first I just didn't want to fall over and hurt myself. I couldn't take my eyes off my feet because they were moving independently for the first time in so long," he said.

It was not until several hours after his first training session that the magnitude of what he had just done hit him.

David MacCalman: "The intimacy and opportunities are endless. My daughter is 17 and there's the potential to walk her down the aisle."

"It wasn't really until I had time to think afterwards that I really reflected, and it was very emotional.

"That moment, when I broke my neck and realised that I was paralysed and probably wouldn't walk again, all came back."

Richard Little, one of the creators and chief technology officer for Rex Bionics, said he couldn't be happier with his first customer. "Dave is not only a great bloke, but he is a shining light in the New Zealand disability community, and in general. "Seeing him standing and walking, it never wears off. That is what drives us to come in here every day."

MacCalman is a Paralympics gold medallist, but says his sporting successes never made up for being in a wheelchair.

"I was the same person, but suddenly people see you differently. I used to go to a bar in town with a local basketball team and I would hang with the guys I used to play with, but they were all so tall, and I could never get a conversation going.

"Rex will allow me to be back at eye-level, and there are a lot of people who have never known me other than in a wheelchair, so to see their reactions will be really neat."

Auckland Spinal Rehabilitation Unit clinical head Dr Cynthia Bennett says Rex will improve MacCalman's health.

"Every system of the body is affected when there is a spinal injury. The renal system, in particular, works partly on gravity, so if you're sitting down all the time then that gravity is changed and can lead to infections and kidney stones.

"Being upright will allow the bladder to work the way it should. Gravity also works with us when we breathe, so standing up will lower the risk of respiratory infections."

MacCalman says the cost of the Rex, around $150,000, is "immeasurable" compared to the health benefits. "I know health-wise it is going to extend my life."

May 19 will mark 31 years since MacCalman's accident, when he dived into a shallow river while on a basketball scholarship in California, and the thought of being able to walk on that day is "extremely special".

He hopes to use the knowledge he gains from the legs to help others who have been told they will never walk again. "I'm hoping that what I learn and what I can develop on these legs will help others. The fact that we in New Zealand can take it to the world is fantastic."

WHO IS DAVID MacCALMAN?
David MacCalman was an elite basketballer, playing for Wellington in the New Zealand national league before joining Brisbane in the Australian NBL. He was on a basketball scholarship in California when he broke his neck diving into a shallow river. Since then he has forged a sporting career as a basketball coach and as a three-time Paralympian, winning gold medals in the shot put and javelin at Sydney in 2000.

- Sunday Star Times

© 2011 Fairfax New Zealand Limited