History manufactures its most memorable moments in out-of-the-way places. An Ohio bicycle shop was the birthplace of the the airplane. This generation may one day remember what was invented in the basement of a 99-cent store.
That’s where Monty Reed has a workshop, stuffed with toys, tools and a tiny model of a wheelchair. Doctors said he would spend his life in one.
Back in 1986, Monty was a member of the elite Army Rangers. “It was a night jump, and we were jumping low,” he recalls. “We were training. Somebody got too close to my parachute. They came in underneath.”
The chute beneath him blocked Monty’s air, and his chute closed. Monty crashed a hundred feet to the ground, breaking his back in five places.
Monty did not realize how badly he was injured. “It hurt to breathe. It was difficult to move, but the Army Rangers train us to just keep going.” The worst pain was in his ankle, which was also broken. “I wrapped some tape around it. Tightened the straps on my gear and walked. We had to walk eight miles to the helicopter.”
The next morning, Monty could not move. “Doctors said that it was likely I would never walk again. It was permanent damage, and would only get worse.”
Monty stared out of his hospital window, wondering what the future would hold. Due to a learning disability, his high school grades had been terrible: “I couldn’t do math and couldn’t spell.” His guidance counselor told him to forget about going to college.
It was the saddest moment of his life. “The experts told me my brain doesn’t work. And now the experts are telling me my body doesn’t work! What am I supposed to do?”
To distract himself, he picked up a book: Robert Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers.” The science-fiction classic describes a set of man-made muscles that would allow people to carry 2,000 pounds. “And I thought, ‘You know, if I could build a lightweight version of that, it might lift me out of the wheelchair.’ ”
A wearable robot
Turns out, Monty never needed that device: After decades of rehabilitation, he made an amazing recovery. He even jumped out of an airplane again to celebrate. But he wanted to do something for others with the second chance life had given him. He would perfect a working model of a robot that people could wear — one that would get the injured, the elderly and the paralyzed out of their wheelchairs.
“A lot of people 20 years ago, when I was talking about robot suits, they thought I must have hit my head when I broke my back.”
Monty chuckled with them, and then went to the 99-cent store for parts. He fashioned his first skeleton out of carpenter levels connected at the knee with an old compact disc he’d been using as a coffee coaster. For more advanced models he borrowed his kid’s car seat and hockey shin guards.
Monty’s latest version looks like something Frankenstein might date: Not slick, but it works. It took top honors two years running at the International Robo Games. “Won the silver and the gold, because we were the only one there with robot suits,” Monty laughs.
He has programmed a computer to record the way a person normally moves, and then duplicate those actions with man-made muscles.
“That makes perfect sense,” says Dr. Steven Stiens, an associate professor at the University of Washington Medical School. He and 40 other volunteers now gather in Monty’s workshop twice a week, helping him do the things he cannot do by himself. “I think we’re on the right track because we have a unique solution to the problem,” Stiens says. They hope to have a model ready for testing in hospitals soon, and a streamlined home version by 2015.
Seeing the future
With a few improvements, Dr. Stiens believes that these wearable robots may be able to really help people … people like him. He’s been in a wheelchair himself most of his life. “I think it would be the best gift I could give my friend,” Monty says.
Dr. Stiens is a daily reminder of how Monty’s life could have gone. He says he envisions a quadriplegic putting on one of his robot suits “and being able to play the piano again. It reacts to their thoughts. They don’t have to have a controller; they just think about it.”
And that’s not all Monty sees in his mind’s eye. “I’ve seen them compete in marathons and go swimming and ice skating and dancing and mountain climbing.”
“What if you don’t live long enough to see the successful suit?”
“It means nothing, Bob. I’ve already seen what the thing looks like 20 years from now.”
He has seen it. And that’s why we may see it too.
Keep those ideas coming. Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my mailbox .
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints