Dr. Edward Farrar, recipient of 24th annual “Spirit of A.Z. Wells Award,”
leading the drive to make exoskeleton therapy available to all who can’t walk
By Jeanette Marantos for the Confluence Health Foundation
WENATCHEE—Edward Farrar has a gift for overcoming obstacles. He abandoned a football scholarship at Georgia Tech after just one year, so he could study medicine. He raised his sunken cabin cruiser in a Florida hurricane and then spent a year working construction to pay off his debt on the uninsured boat.
He went back to school newly motivated, working as a research assistant and waiter while graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Florida in 1974. He entered medical school at Emory University and graduated Magna Cum Laude. His residency training at the University of Washington led him to a career as an orthopedic surgeon, and in 1983, he founded Wenatchee Orthopaedics with another orthopedic surgeon, Fred Deal. He remained on the clinical faculty at the University of Washington for several years, and from 2004-2006 served as the president of the Washington State Orthopedic Association. He climbed mountains all over the world and worked as a volunteer surgeon in Nepal. He was also an avid cyclist, and would regularly ride his bicycle up Number 2 Canyon on his way to work at Central Washington Hospital.
So when a distracted driver ran him over one October morning in 2008, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down, it took him less than a year to go back to work as a consulting physician, with a whole new perspective on orthopedic medicine as a paraplegic. Even though he almost died on a bicycle, he still bikes regularly with a recumbent handcycle—a kind of reclining bicycle that’s hand-propelled. He gets himself out of bed every day and drives himself to work.
Still, out of all those achievements, Farrar says one of his greatest moments came last spring, when he strapped on an Ekso™ Exoskeleton and, for the first time in six years, stood up and walked.
“The best way I can explain it is to ask you to sit in a chair and imagine that the only thing you can feel are your arms. Then imagine you want nothing more than to stand up and walk outside, but try and try as you might you cannot get your body to move, even though your mind and your heart are screaming, ‘Get up and walk!’ It’s an internal frustration you have to live with 24-7, that there is no hope you can ever again make that movement. Then you get in an exoskeleton. You lean forward, you stand up, and suddenly you’re 6 feet tall again and you can look at people eye to eye. It’s a dramatic difference in how you feel in the world,” he said.
“Even if it’s artificial, walking with a robotic device is still walking, and walking is a miracle. Walking has so many health benefits; even being able to walk short periods of time on a regular basis can make a huge difference in your life. Now we finally have a tool that can give paralyzed people some hope.”
Farrar will be recognized for his community contributions Nov. 13 during the Confluence Health Foundation’s 24th annual gala presentation of the Spirit of A.Z. Wells Award for Community Service. Tickets are available at the Foundation office, 665-6030.
All proceeds from the gala, and from the foundation’s annual Armada Golf Classic golf tournament this fall will go toward funding Farrar’s new goal: making exoskeleton therapy available to all eligible paralyzed people in the region, regardless of whether their physical therapy benefits have expired.
The physician-led Confluence Health didn’t need much persuading to bring the device to Wenatchee in 2014. Farrar demonstrated the exoskeleton in front of the executive board last June, and the equipment was in Wenatchee by September, making Confluence one of the first medical centers in the entire Northwest to provide exoskeleton physical therapy to paralyzed patients.
Farrar, a member of the Confluence Health Foundation board, helped the foundation raise $80,000 from the community to purchase the $150,000 device, but the Confluence board was so impressed with the exoskeleton’s potential, it decided to cover the rest of the cost itself. “This wasn’t a business decision or financial decision,” he said. “It was one of those times where physicians who care for people said, ‘This is the right thing to do, so we should do this.’”
Now Farrar is leading the charge to create an endowment with at least $150,000 that will be used to fund scholarships for patients whose physical therapy benefits have expired on Medicare or their health insurance, so they can continue getting exoskeleton therapy.
“We now know that getting a person who is paralyzed up and into a walking motion is one of the fastest ways to get the spinal cord and nerves to heal,” Farrar said. “It won’t cure me—my injury was too severe—but less than 10 percent of the people with spinal cord damage are injured as badly as I was. We’ve learned there’s more neural plasticity in the brain and spinal cord than we imagined, and for people with partial paralysis—from strokes, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and, of course, spinal cord injury—this kind of therapy can be almost miraculous.”
It’s not clear yet how much therapy is needed to kick-start damaged nerves into working again, but Farrar said he hopes Confluence Health can get involved in research looking into that very question, because getting an answer could help guide insurers and government officials in adjusting the limits for physical therapy coverage.
“Compared to all other health problems, treatment options for neurologic injury and disease are still pretty primitive, and the U.S. lags behind most of the developed world in this area of medicine,” Farrar said.
“The specifics of neurologic disorders do need to be understood more completely by both health care providers and politicians, no question, and nothing is real until it’s personal. Once you or a loved one have a neurologic disorder or disease, you realize that a physical therapy cap of two months isn’t enough. Neurological conditions aren’t like broken bones that heal in six weeks; they become lifelong disabilities for people. In America, 75 percent of people with spinal cord injury become obese because they have nothing to do but sit around all day and eat. Being able to get the benefits of exercise is huge.”
Farrar said he remembers several paraplegics he cared for whose bones became “osteoporotic”—porous and brittle. “They would have multiple fractures, or develop pressure sores that wouldn’t heal….if they’d had a chance to stand up and walk two times a week, they might have avoided those problems.”
Exercise was a regular part of Farrar’s life before his injury, and he’s done as much as he can to continue the practice since. He has a workout station in his house, and was able to get back to cycling within six months of his accident by using a recumbent handcycle. “I just wanted to be able to move and do something without a wheelchair,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it was courage; I’d say it was desire.”
But he couldn’t have done it alone, Farrar says. That’s one of the most important things he’s learned since he was paralyzed. “You really learn how important our connections are to others—friends, family, the people you work with—and how important it is to find something to look forward to on a day to day basis.”
Farrar has a long list of vital “connections”— the ongoing support of Biosports Physical Therapy, a group of friends who cycle with him every time he goes out on the Loop trail and the owners of Arlberg Sports, who make regular cycling possible by storing his bike for him in their shop, which is right next to the Riverwalk Crossing pedestrian bridge.
Storing a bike may seem like a little thing, he said, “but I can meet my friends, get on the bridge and ride around the Loop without ever having to deal with traffic. They not only do it for me, but for three other paraplegics who keep their handcycles there.”
Those kinds of connections make this valley a special place, he said.
“I’m not sure that would happen in other communities. When you have an injury like this, hope is the hardest thing to hold on to and the most important thing to keep. You end up putting your life back together in pieces, and I have been truly blessed to live in Wenatchee, because I have been able to put together a quality of life that would be almost impossible in other places.”
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