In a hallway of Simon Fraser University, retired Canadian Forces captain Trevor Greene is doing something he has not been able to do since being struck in the head by an axe in Afghanistan in 2006.
Mr. Greene, 50, is walking.
It doesn't come easily. He is wearing an exoskeleton, a framework of black metal pieces and struts that encase his legs, and is powered by a battery in a slick backpack. He leans on a walker. His wife, Debbie, is ahead of him. Behind him, Jay Courant, whose U.S.-based company ReWalk developed the technology, is spotting him.
There's a whirring sound as Mr. Greene takes his steps forward, lurches awkwardly and focuses on the exercise so intently that the rest of the hallway – the specialists, his wife and a Globe and Mail reporter and photographer – seem to fall away.
His brain injury came in an infamous incident. While meeting village elders in Afghanistan, Mr. Greene had removed his military helmet. A male youth came at the captain from behind and hit him in the head with an axe, inflicting serious injuries that forced his evacuation to Germany and then Canada for treatment.
On Thursday, Mr. Greene is scheduled to demonstrate his new skills at a news conference, displaying an ability he has been honing, with the exoskeleton, since June. Mr. Greene is taking steps along his own journey, aiming to eventually walk unaided.
But he also wants to give hope to others with brain injuries. The Royal Canadian Legion raised the funds for $100,000 skeleton, now being fine-tuned as a research exercise by faculty at SFU.
"I hope it gives them hope because that's critical. The current medical wisdom holds that within six months of a brain injury, you don't improve," Mr. Greene said in an interview before suiting up.
But he hopes his experience helps to stir others' fighting spirit.
"After six months, the doctors give up on brain-injury survivors. Most importantly, the survivors give up. They accept their lot," he said. "I am hoping to change that."
Mr. Greene has done four circuits of his Vancouver Island home with the skeleton. His eventual goal is to walk out on the street, but he has no idea how long it will take him.
He has trained with a walker with two people helping him. But the exoskeleton has helped him move on his own.
Asked what the experience was like, he says, simply, that it was "wild," smiling broadly as he savours the "liberating" memory. "It can get me close to walking, close enough that I can use other training to actually walk."
Researchers have seen signs of remarkable recovery in his brain that reflect Mr. Greene's determination to get better. Asked about that determination, he says, "I was pretty easygoing before I got in the army. The army gave it to me."
Indeed, he is the co-author with Ms. Greene and others, of Long-Term Motor Recovery After Severe Traumatic Brain Injury: Beyond Established Limits, just published in the Journal of Head Trauma and Rehabilitation.
Another author is Ryan D'Arcy, a neuroscientist and faculty member in the engineering and computing science department at SFU who has been working with Mr. Greene since 2009. Dr. D'Arcy was on hand Wednesday to work with Mr. Greene and other members of the team.
"Every morning, Trevor gets up and thinks about walking," Dr. D'Arcy says.