RALEIGH – “Look at you, you’re the robot man,” teased Sarah Thor, as she watched her paralyzed husband, Michael, strap on his robotic arm for the first time.

“You’re the terminator now,” his mother, Karen Thor, piped in.

It’s been four years since a motorcycle accident left Michael a quadriplegic, unable to move from the neck down and perform the simplest of tasks – like touching his face, or feeding himself.

But starting today, that could all change for the co-owner of the popular Raleigh restaurant Whiskey Kitchen.

The 37-year old finally got to test-drive his new robotic arm, custom made for him by the medical robotics firm Myomo.

Two company reps flew in from out of state to finally fit him with the arm at NextStep Raleigh, the paralysis recovery center set up by his mother, Karen Thor.

Michael and Sarah Thor

“It feels good,” Michael said, as they worked to slip the robotic arm into place like a glove over his actual arm.

Nearby, they used a computer to program the arm to make short, jerky movements.

“I can feel my triceps pulsating,” Michael said, grinning.

“The movement was more than I expected. I can open and close my hands, which is something that I was not able to do before.”

Tonight, he said he would celebrate with a whiskey at his restaurant.

“Something Irish probably. I’m on a big Irish whiskey kick right now.”

How it works

The Massachusetts-based startup Myomo says its powered brace, the MyoPro, is the only robotics device currently on the market that can restore mobility for people suffering from neurological disorders or upper-body paralysis.

The arm weighs about four pounds and is a wearable device designed to help restore function to arms and hands paralyzed or weakened by conditions such as CVA stroke, brachial plexus injury, cerebral palsy, or other neurological or neuromuscular disease or injury.

A Myomo rep fits Michael Thor with a robotic arm.

It works by reading the faint nerve signals, also known as EMG signals, from the surface of the skin without the need for implants or surgery, which activates small motors to move the arm and hand as the user intends.

The user wearing the brace is completely controlling their own hand and arm with the brace amplifying their weak muscle signal to help move the limb.

Paralyzed Raleigh restaurant co-owner prepares to test drive robotic arm

Launched in 2015, around 700 people around the country have received the arm to date.

However, the device takes time to learn how to use.

“It’s not like you can put it on and just do functional tasks,” said Heather Ward, regional manager at Myomo.

“It’s a really a process over a series of weeks where we have to do individual motions, practice those and bring them all togther to make the device work as a whole. But Michael is highly motivated.”

A waiting list

Six other clients at NextStep have also been assessed for the arm, and are now waiting for approval from insurance.

“I hope they all get approved,” said Karen Thor, a former banking exec who opened the paralysis recovery center with her own personal savings because no other options existed at the time.

“It will give them motion that they don’t have now, which is huge. It it lets them regain function that they can actually use. But then on top of that, this causes neurorecovery. So they have it and use it regularly, which I’m sure they will, after a while they can take it off and still have the motion just naturally in their arm. It’s so cool.”

Note: NextStepRaleigh will be holding its second annual Bootlegger’s Bash to raise funds for the center at Imuri, 300 S. McDowell Street in downtown Raleigh on January 25, from 7.30-1am. For more information, email at yortiz@nextstepraleigh.org, or call  at (919) 679-9405.

Raleigh mother opens recovery center after son’s paralyzing motorcycle accident