Twice a week for the past three months, Wallsend's Ashley Treseder has had the opportunity to stand and walk.
"It's like a cold, tingly feeling - a rush of blood," says the 31-year-old of the moment he stands up. "It feels amazing. I can feel my Achilles, my glute and my hip on the right side, the movement of extending."
The keen sportsman and former disability support worker lost all movement below his waste after he broke his neck diving off a pier in Shoal Bay in January.
A pilot trial at the University of Newcastle, however, sees Mr Treseder moving out of his wheelchair and even doing squats.
When Mr Treseder does walk it is with a slow, exaggerated gait, guided by a robot: HELLEN - Hunter's Exoskeleton for Lower Limb Exercise and Neuro-rehabilitation.
The trial's chief investigator Dr Jodie Marquez and PhD student Nicola Postol are testing whether the freestanding, motorised "skeleton" is a worthy rehabilitation tool for people who have lost mobility in their legs.
"It's very different to all the other exoskeletons because it can stand without any support, which is why it is quite accessible for people with really high level injuries like Ash. If those using it wanted to, they could do nothing. For those, like Ash, who can't move their legs, we encourage them to imagine sending those messages to their limbs, which he feels he can do," Ms Postol said.
Mr Treseder said since he started physiotherapy and participating in the trial three months ago he had seen improvements in his strength and balance. He said transferring from his wheelchair to bed had become easier.
"It used to take me half-an-hour, now I can do it in one or two lifts, so that's a huge difference," he said.
Changing position also gives him some relief from neck pain. However, Mr Treseder said the greatest benefits were psychological.
"It's just cool to be able to look people in the eye," he said. "You have this perception of everyone being giant."
Mr Treseder's mum, Donna Treseder, a nurse who is currently living with Mr Treseder, agreed.
"He is just so happy doing it," she said. "It gives him hope for the technology coming on."
HELLEN is in its final weeks of use at the University. Ms Postol will collate the data from the 22 participants in the trial.
"We are looking at whether there is any change in participants but also if they can tolerate the machine, whether it's acceptable and safe. There's no adverse events so far. That's really positive considering the serious nature of the injuries of the participants we're working with," she said.
Mr Treseder said that after spending the year developing his strength and honing a new routine, he is looking to return to work in a new position with his former employer Lifestyle Solutions in 2020. He has also recently started training with the NSW wheelchair rugby side.
"I love it," he said. "I'm pretty much the most competitive person I know so having that has been a really good outlet. I hope to make the team."
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