One year later: Bionics to help paralyzed dancer walk again
January 15, 2013
On the one-year anniversary of her paralysis, tenacious dancer and gymnast Tresa Honaker will don bionic legs, a step she hopes will lead her to one day dance once more.
"I want to walk again," Honaker said. "I want to dance again."
On this day one year ago, Honaker, 47, fell 15 feet while practicing an aerial dance at The Center for the Arts in Grass Valley — a shattering crash that severed her spine and left her paralyzed from the waist down.
Honaker had been renowned locally for her aerial dancing, an aspiration attained through physical dedication, she said.
“I want to walk again. I want to dance again.”
— Tresa Honaker
"At that time, I was probably healthier than I was in my entire life," Honaker said.
After the fall, it would have been easy for Honaker to spiral into depression. But she's not one to give up or shy away from a challenge.
"Do I settle into what I have and make the best of it, or do I keep pushing to get something back?" Honaker asked. "I would rather end my life pushing the limit."
Honaker views her paralysis the same as she viewed returning to dancing after years away from it in her 20s — a challenge she said required her to catch up with dancers who had kept with it. In coming back, she said she had to retrain her body.
"I kept thinking, 'Even though I'm older than most people I hang out with, I can learn this,'" Honaker said. "This is just a different set of circumstances,"
In the intervening year since her injury, Honaker has explored a multitude of physical therapies, meeting folks from the disabled community and raising funds for her treatment — all in an effort not to be bound by her circumstances.
"It was what I did," Honaker said. "I just want to feel connected again."
Prior to her fall, Honaker had subsisted as a hairdresser, a profession impeded by her being in a wheelchair.
"Right now, I need to find another way to collect income," Honaker said, "because I'm basically living off Social Security for my basic needs."
Nearly $30,000 was raised in the last year to support Honaker — most of which came from Nevada County, she said.
"Everything they did and everything they told me, it blew me away," Honaker said. "I had no idea that many people cared."
Among tactics that have included yoga and acupuncture, Honaker has visited Grass Valley's Spring Hill Physical Therapy, Oakland-based Axis, a "physically integrated" dance company, as well as meeting the Sundance Channel's "Push Girls", which follows a group of paralyzed women in Hollywood.
She's also a member of Team Colours, a Southern California wheelchair company.
"I try to stay active as much as possible. I lift weights, and I push around town (in my wheelchair)," Honaker said.
"When I go out and get winded and my muscles ache, that reminds me of who I am."
Honaker has also worked with Project Walk, an intense activity-based spinal injury recovery center in Carlsbad that bucks the notion of compensating a disability and instead attempts to reestablish neural activity to areas of paralysis.
"They push you hard," Honaker said, noting that the demanding physicality of the therapy is a welcome reminder of her aerial dancing.
"It's a little expensive, but I get a lot out of it," Honaker said.
It was a bit of luck that Ekso Bionics became interested in Honaker as somewhat of a test pilot for its wearable robot, or exoskeleton, geared to enable people with lower-extremity paralysis or weakness to stand and walk.
Honaker remains the artistic director of AirAligned, a Grass Valley group she founded specializing in the theatrical aerial dance, featuring acrobatics and dance while performers hold onto a fabric. She still teaches classes there.
A relative of a student works at Ekso, Honaker said, and he heard of Honaker through the grapevine.
Honaker was fitted Thursday for the Ekso suit, she said, which is a ready-to-wear, battery-powered bionic device that is strapped over the user's clothing, according to the company's website.
Usually, individuals begin using a walker and progress to crutches.
The company plans to launch a personal version in early 2014.
"Ekso coming up was really good for me because standing upright and walking is the best thing for me right now," Honaker said. "It will give me the strength to look forward."
Honaker is expected to give the suit a test run today, which just happens to be the one-year anniversary of her paralysis. Honaker described that as a weird coincidence.
"It's really strange that it's on the same day," she said.
Honaker hopes to continue to use the Ekso suit at the company's site as frequently as possible — once a week if allowed, she said.
"I don't want to forget what it's like to be me," she said.
To make a contribution to Honaker's recovery, visit her website at http://www.airaligned.com to donate via PayPal or at Tri-Counties Bank (formerly Citizen's Bank).
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email email@example.com or call (530) 477-4236.