Stacy Verner is a 26-year-old writer from Charleston, South Carolina. She holds a B.A. in Magazine Journalism from The University of Georgia and is working towards her M.F.A. in Writing from SCAD. She spent the last several years working in the creative and marketing departments at various advertising agencies, although her true love lies in freelance.
He Got Legs
“You simply have to put one foot in front of the other.”
In times of struggle, it’s a mantra we can all identify with. A reminder to push forward, to keep going. “To put blinders on and plow right ahead,” as George Lucas once said. To clench your fists and power through the pain, despite the seemingly infinite odds stacked against you.
For Adam Gorlitsky, the phrase takes on a double meaning.
His hands were stiff; his abs throbbed more than they ever had before. Slowly, he worked his way up the bridge – one foot in front of the other. People cheered as he passed, waving handmade signs and brandishing his name on their neon tank tops, capturing his every move on film – ironic, considering he’s usually the one behind the lens. He bowed his head, teeth gritted, trying his best to stay focused on the task before him, a milestone that had been eight months in the making. Something he couldn’t give up on now.
One foot in front of the other.
With three miles down, it was already the furthest he had walked in over a decade. And he was only halfway there.
There was the finish line of the Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston, South Carolina, the third-largest 10K in the country. As he stood at the peak of the iconic bridge, people flooded past him in waves, yelling and whistling, screaming his name as he took slow, deliberate steps towards the end – or, more accurately, towards his new beginning.
He is Adam Gorlitsky, a 29-year-old former high school athlete with a completely severed spinal cord. On April 2, 2016, Gorlitsky became the first paralyzed man in history to participate in the Cooper River Bridge Run, crossing the finish line after seven hours and 17,932 steps, a number now tattooed on his forearm as a constant, visual reminder of his physical strength and perseverance.
As a reminder to never give up, despite the odds.
Now, six weeks after completing the Bridge Run and ten years after the car accident that left him permanently paralyzed, he has his sights set on something much, much bigger.
And he’ll get there – everyone who knows him has no doubt about that. He’ll get there the same way he’s been getting around for the last ten years of his life.
By putting one foot in front of the other.
Only this time, he’s doing it literally.
“I can’t feel my legs.”
In a memory he describes as a blurry mixture of random sounds, colors and smoke, that’s the one detail Gorlitsky can recall.
I can’t feel my legs.
On December 30, 2005, at around 8:30 p.m., Gorlitsky was driving his blue Chevrolet Tahoe from Columbia, South Carolina to his hometown of Charleston, where he was planning on celebrating his brother’s birthday, and New Year’s Eve, the next day.
“I got up really early that morning,” Gorlitsky said. “I probably got up at 5:30 in the morning in Charleston and drove to Columbia with all my furniture – I was moving into this new apartment with three of my friends.
Going into his sophomore year at the University of South Carolina, Gorlitsky was the pinnacle of youth – smart, attractive, athletic. In high school, he played basketball, track and cross country, an obsessive athlete who clocked a sub-five minute mile and whose name still hangs on the wall of his old high school basketball gym. But he wasn’t just an athlete: he had an artistic side, too. He was interested in film, and had a dream of starting his own business one day, maybe even a nonprofit. He was outgoing by nature, but suffered from a slight stammer, something he managed to overcome but always lingered in his conscious when he struck up conversation, like the remnants of a splinter that never fully healed. Moving into his new apartment, Gorlitsky recalls feeling like he was “taking the next step,” moving out of the dorms and up in his life towards a more independent existence, something he was eager to obtain.
That independence was taken from him in 3-5 seconds – the time it takes to fall asleep at the wheel, lose control of the car and crash into a line of trees on the side of Interstate-26.
“I knew I was tired, I knew I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt,” Gorlitsky said. “But I was almost home. I fell asleep for 3-5 seconds, shot up, and half of my car was off the road. I freaked out, over corrected, did a 180, hit a bunch of trees and got thrown into the backseat.”
The next two weeks were another series of blurs: seeing a woman he calls his “guardian angel” run towards his car to dump a bucket of ice on the flames. Getting airlifted to the Medical University of South Carolina. A broken back. A tracheotomy. Coughing up blood. A medically induced coma that lasted “seven, eight, nine” days – he can’t quite recall.
After regaining consciousness, Gorlitsky found that he had lost 45 pounds in a week – and he still had no feeling in his legs. He was then airlifted to the Shepherd Center, a spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation center in Atlanta, Georgia, where he would await his “judgment day” – the day he was wheeled into a boardroom of doctors to be given his prognosis.
“It was like something out of a movie,” Gorlitsky said.
As an avid filmmaker, producer and director at his film production and development company, The Gorlitsky Group, Gorlitsky tends to describe every aspect of his life as if he’s viewing it through a cinematic lens. He compares major life milestones to Seinfeld episodes or dramatic big reveals on Oprah, like he’s sitting on the edge of his seat, gnawing at his fingernails, waiting to find out how his own life will unfold.
At the age of 19, that life took a twist he never saw coming: Gorlitsky learned he had suffered a T9 complete spinal cord injury, words that were foreign to an otherwise healthy kid.
‘T9’ refers to a section in the lower thoracic region of the spinal cord, just above the belly button. Injuries in this area can be classified as either “complete” or “incomplete,” depending on their severity.
“Typically, someone with a T9 complete spinal cord injury means that below that level of T9, they would not have any sensation or muscle activity,” said Clare Hartigan, Program Manager for Lower-Extremity Robotics at the Shepherd Center. “All the connections between the upper body and that injury level have been lost.”
While there is no sure way to tell if function will ever return, the potential for recovery is based on the severity of the injury; with complete paralysis from the belly button down, Gorlitsky faced a bleak reality.
Put simply: he would never walk again.
“You always hold out hope,” Gorlitsky said. “I’ll never forget this day. I just remember feeling like my world stopped all over again.”
Despite his gruesome story, Gorlitsky has a love of life that is so palpable, listening to him recount the details of his accident makes his wheelchair seem to disappear; when he speaks, you just don’t notice it. Instead, you notice the man sitting in it. The man who somehow manages to inject humor into a memory that most would shudder at, the man who speaks about his crash as if it ended completely differently. As if he overcame it and walked right out of the flames, head held high.
Which he did, ten years later.
He laughs at being “butt naked” in the Emergency Room, horrified at the thought of his mother seeing his body without clothes. He recalls joking with the police officer at the wreck scene “while I was in the backseat dying, basically” about the barhopping I.D. that was found in his mangled car. Come on, Officer, he had said. You have to cut me some slack right now. He smiles at the stories, but they force one to realize just how young he was at the time of his accident – nineteen. Just a kid. A college student with a fake I.D. and an entire life at his fingertips – a life that was being ripped from his grip far too soon.
And then there’s Gorlitsky’s true and unmistakable love of people: his recollection of gazing down at the wreckage from the helicopter, his mind wandering to all the other drivers who were likely to get stuck in traffic due to the accident he caused – the accident that mangled his spinal cord and left him confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
And this is the very quality that carried Gorlitsky through some of his darkest years to follow: an insatiable thirst to know other people – to really know them – and hear their stories. As a man who always preferred to be behind the lens as opposed to in front of it, that thirst is just now starting to be quenched with the help of a wearable robotic exoskeleton called ReWalk, a piece of cutting-edge technology that’s redefining Gorlitsky’s life without legs – and helping him turn his own story into the greatest one he’s ever told.
“Five to ten years.”
That was the answer Gorlitsky gave to his friends when asked how long he’d be confined to his chair.
“You never want to tell anybody ‘never.’ ‘I’m never going to get out. I’m always going to be in this,’” Gorlitsky said. “So I would tell people ‘5-10 years.’ And then five years went by, and it was the same question, same answer. ‘5-10 years.’”
Gorlitsky first learned of ReWalk Robotics four years ago while searching on YouTube. A medical device company that designs, develops and commercializes exoskeletons for wheelchair-bound individuals, their technology was still in the clinical trials stage when Gorlitsky stumbled across them in 2012, not yet available in the U.S. There’s a particular passion found in his voice when he talks about the time he spends researching possible cures for his disability, specifically the potential of stem cells to bridge the tiny gap that severs his spinal cord, a slit mere centimeters in length. After a decade of research, Gorlitsky thinks it’s plausible that spinal cord injuries could be completely cured in the next 5 to 15 years; however, he’s not the type to wait patiently.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is amazing, but it doesn’t look practical,’” Gorlitsky said. “The walking gait wasn’t that normal, and it just didn’t really seem like something I could use every day.”
After practically forgetting about the legs, four years passed before he thought of them again during a routine checkup at the Roper Spinal Cord Injury Center in Charleston, where Gorlitsky goes once a year.
In July of 2015, Gorlitsky was told that Roper was one of 27 rehab centers in the country with access to a ReWalk exoskeleton; today, that number has climbed to 35. Being the proper height, weight and meeting certain bone density and upper body strength requirements, he was the perfect candidate to test the legs.
“I remember thinking: ‘Man, if I do this, I could walk over the bridge,’” Gorlitsky said. “I wasn’t thinking about the Bridge Run, I was just thinking about how cool it would be to walk over the bridge, maybe make a funny documentary about it… I was saying all of that, making a joke out of it, but honestly, I really did want to walk again. I was always afraid to admit that, but I did.”
The Cooper River Bridge Run is the third largest 10K and the fifth largest road race in the United States; with a lifespan of 39 years, the race starts in the town of Mount Pleasant, takes participants up and over the iconic Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge and into downtown Charleston, dropping them off in the heart of the city 6.2 miles later. Anyone who knows the city of Charleston knows the Ravenel Bridge, the third-longest cable-stayed bridge in the Western Hemisphere that stretches 1,546 feet across blue saltwater and pluff mud, the perfect skyline silhouette to accompany Charleston’s church steeples and sailboats.
The point being: it’s not just a bridge. It’s a symbol of the city. The perfect place for Gorlitsky to reclaim his legs – and his life.
“When I first stood up in the exoskeleton, I remember thinking that all three of my passions were colliding: athletics, storytelling and entrepreneurship,” Gorlitsky said. “I remember thinking: ‘If I do this the right way, this could be something.’ And it really became my purpose. I was taking this perceived weakness and turning it into my strength.”
Gorlitsky talks about paralysis as his perceived weakness, but he recounts the many ways a permanent disability can truly hold a person back. He avoided trips with friends in favor of the familiarity of home, where he knew exactly what obstacles to expect and how to overcome them. He was broken up with – multiple times – over his inability to stand or walk, the simple pleasure of kissing a girlfriend at eyelevel an unattainable fantasy. He was denied jobs he felt qualified for because they didn’t have access to a ramp. He calls himself a “homebody by nature,” but reflects on the fact that this quality was likely “magnified to the extreme” due to his injury, and the understanding that while being paralyzed affects him on a primary level, it affects everyone he comes in contact with on a secondary level. As a person who typically avoids the spotlight – or, rather, likes to point the spotlight on someone else – Gorlitsky hated the feeling of standing out in a crowd, which happened almost everywhere he went.
“Before my accident, nobody really touched me,” Gorlitsky said. “After my accident, people would just do little things like grab my hair or rub my head. I wasn’t upset about it… I just accepted like, okay, I guess this is what people do… But when I stood up in that exoskeleton, all of these emotions came flooding in.”
A week after standing up for the first time, Gorlitsky recalls the next time someone touched him like that, rubbing his hair as you would a toddler.
“My fight-or-flight kicked in tremendously,” he said. “I just remember saying: ‘You would not be doing that if I was standing up right now. I’m 6’1’’ and 195 pounds. You would not be rubbing my head.’”
Standing in the exoskeleton, Gorlitsky was forced to reevaluate the very reality he’d been working towards accepting for the last decade of his life: that he’d never walk again. Now, on the edge on 30, standing upright for the first time since he was a teenager, Gorlitsky was getting a little taste of what his life could be like – what it would have been like – had he just not gotten in that car. Had he pulled over and taken a nap. He started to realize that all of those years accepting his fate might have actually been suppressing it.
He started to realize: maybe he could walk again.
Gorlitsky started training with Roper’s exoskeleton in September of 2015; in October, he launched his crowd-funding campaign, I Got Legs, in the hopes of being able to purchase his own. In just three months, he raised $10,000, enough for the down payment of the exoskeleton, and on December 30, 2015, on the ten-year anniversary of the day he lost his legs, he was presented with his own.
“I always told people, ‘5-10 years,’” Gorlitsky said. “So now I look like I knew what I was talking about.”
“Part man, part machine.”
Even before receiving his exoskeleton, Gorlitsky had become accustomed to relying on technology to help him live a normal life. Paralysis from the belly button down comes with a range of issues, most of them hidden from the naked eye. While it seems like the most severe side effect, the inability to stand or walk only scratches the surface.
“What people don’t realize, nor do I expect them to, is that permanent physical disability affects the individual in so many ways that you can’t see,” Gorlitsky said.
For example, in addition to the loss of movement and sensation in the affected limbs, spinal cord injuries also affect bowel control, bladder control and sexual function, forcing patients to rely on catheters or assistance from others in some of the most intimate aspects of their lives. They face repeated bladder infections, kidney infections, hospitalization and sometimes major surgery – just so they can use the bathroom.
“I am literally part man, part machine, both inside and outside my body,” Gorlitsky said.
When he says “part man, part machine,” he’s referring to another piece of technology he received in 2007 called the Vocare Bladder System. Vocare is an extremely rare device, an implanted neuro-stimulator created to restore bladder, bowel and erectile function for patients who have suffered from complete spinal cord injury.
The system consists of two parts: an external digital controller and an internal receiver, which is permanently implanted in the body, just below the ribs and under the skin. Using the external controller, Gorlitsky is able to select one of the stimulation programs and hold the transmitter block over the site of the implant receiver. The receiver then converts the signals from the transmitter block into electrical impulses, causing the appropriate muscles to contract at the appropriate time.
“This invention changed my life,” Gorlitsky said. “… and has probably saved me from being severely depressed… but no one knows about it, because it’s a really hard subject to talk about.”
And there is yet another unseen consequence of spinal cord injuries, perhaps the most significant of all. Something hard to pick up on and, unfortunately, even harder to talk about: depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and social isolation are all highly reported side effects of victims with permanent spinal cord injuries, primarily due to the insecurities patients face about their own bodily function, both inside and out.
“[This is why] dating is still tough for me,” Gorlitsky said. “And why I’m scared to let people physically into my world. Bowel and bladder function is something that you don’t have to necessarily let your partner see, but sex, on the other hand, is something that requires two people.”
Despite this, Gorlitsky tries to maintain an active dating life; he connects with women on an emotional level and partakes in many other activities that other able-bodied couples enjoy. However, once the initial excitement of each new relationship settles and everyday life begins to kick in, Gorlitsky finds that most of his partners get overwhelmed with the prospect of molding their life to fit the needs of a disability such as his. He’s seen the pattern before: after spending 6-12 months falling in love, they change their mind.
“They can’t do my injury anymore,” Gorlitsky said. “It’s soul-crushing when that happens.”
Despite this, he’s grown from the heartbreak. Gorlitsky defines defeating adversity as “overcoming anything or anyone that you think is controlling you.” He reflects on how adversity, no matter what form it takes, is a test we’ll all one day be faced with.
“People can change emotionally, over time. That’s what adversity does to humans – it changes us emotionally and it makes us look at life in a different way,” Gorlitsky said. “My injury never changes, though. It’s permanent.”
And this is why medical devices like Vocare and ReWalk are so important – on top of helping people with physical disabilities lead a more independent life, they help close the seemingly massive void between being disabled and able-bodied, “making it easier to let people in again.”
“I want that one person that I can grow old with and raise kids with,” Gorlitsky said. “I want someone that fights for me and I fight for them.”
For years, Gorlitsky has been fighting for himself. Fighting towards recovering a sliver of a “normal” life in ways his closest confidants have never even known. After successfully regaining control of the inside of his body, Gorlitsky is now fighting for control of the outside.
“Iron Man Meets Avatar.”
The ReWalk exoskeleton is a real hunk of equipment; however, in only four years, ReWalk Robotics has already released six versions of the exoskeleton, each one lighter, faster and less bulky than the one before. The battery-powered system features a light exoskeleton with motors at the hip and knee joints; the person wearing the exoskeleton – the “ReWalker” – controls the movement using subtle changes in his or her center of gravity. For example, a forward tilt of the upper body is sensed by the exoskeleton, which initiates a step. Repeated shifting generates a sequence of steps, which mimics a functional natural gait of the legs.
“It’s basically a robot that consists of motors, electronics, batteries and a computer,” said Loren Wass, Vice President of Sales at ReWalk Robotics. “Within the computer, we can program in parameters for a specific patient based on hip flection, knee flection, hesitation, speed of walking, and so on and so forth.”
When Gorlitsky walks, the machine whirs, marking a distinct robotic noise with each step forward. It straps to his legs and harnesses his stomach; the battery is attached to his back and his arms are strapped into two arm crutches, which he uses to steady himself and tap the ground as he propels forward. A wristwatch-like controller allows him to switch the suit between sit, stand and walk modes; there is also a stair mode, which has yet to be FDA-approved in the U.S.
Gorlitsky describes the suit as “Iron Man meets Avatar.”
Again with the film references, but he has a valid point: Avatar follows the story of a paraplegic man who feels his legs come to life when he enters his avatar, existing as an able-bodied creature in a world he never knew possible.
“It’s like this freeing thing,” Gorlitsky said. “But when you’re not that blue creature, you’re just back in the chair.”
Back in the chair – back to reality. But the reality of it all is this: Iron Man, Avatar, ReWalk – they’re all just suits. Nothing more than a shell, an external symbol for the internal strength of the superhero inside. A little extra push – or in this case, a sequence of steps – to help the people who wear them live up to their true potential.
After ten years of living life in a chair, learning to walk again is no easy feat. Gorlitsky describes the first four sessions using the exoskeleton as the hardest; after a decade of neglecting his stabilizer muscles, the overlooked and underappreciated part of the body that keeps a person balanced and upright, Gorlitsky could hardly stand, let alone take a step.
“The day after I first stood up, it took me two hours to get out of bed,” Gorlitsky said. “Just from standing.”
But gradually, he grew stronger.
The exoskeleton is a unique piece of equipment in a variety of ways – something straight out of a Sci-Fi movie, truly, considering Wass estimates there are only 45 exoskeletons currently in use in the United States; globally, that number has just barely passed 100.
“There’s probably 320,000 different configurations, between software settings, physical settings, strapping size, pelvic size,” Wass said. “Each device is customized.”
The “brain” of the exoskeleton can be also be adjusted to account for speed, once the ReWalker has become more comfortable with walking and needs to move at a quicker pace. It’s also unique in that the person inside the exoskeleton is supporting his or herself completely; while the motors in each hip physically move the legs forward, balancing in the exoskeleton – and commencing the hip and abdominal movement that initiates each step – must come entirely from the ReWalker.
To do this, there are three forms of required training: putting in steps around a track or other controlled environment, strength training in a gym and simply using the exoskeleton out in public, an uncontrolled environment. Gorlitsky estimates each practice session to last between two and three hours; prior to completing the Bridge Run, he had trained enough to successfully walk three miles in the exoskeleton – less than half the distance of the race. Despite this, he remained confident, estimating it would take around four hours to complete.
On the day of the race, it took him almost double that – seven hours in total. But he pressed on, walking the empty streets with an entourage formed around him, crossing the same finish line that every other runner had crossed.
Because Gorlitsky still can’t feel his legs, he cannot feel the ground beneath each step he takes; for this reason, concentrating on each step is just as hard as actually moving the muscles to take them. Just one distraction, misstep or weight displacement could send him crashing to the ground – which has happened, multiple times. But with each fall comes the inevitable yell and curse, followed by a burst of uncontrollable laughter – and the strength to stand back up again.
“A lot of people ask me: ‘How are you so positive after your accident?’ And I call it my ‘laugh-to-cry ratio,’” Gorlitsky said. “Starting out, [it] was like 10 laughs for every one cry. That one cry will always be there… and initially, you hit that cry a lot. But now, it’s like 10,000 laughs for every one cry.”
Despite that inevitable cry, Gorlitsky has mastered the art of picking himself back up, in more ways than one. He’s taught himself to just keep going, to put one foot in front of the other.
“That’s what I’ve learned throughout this whole thing,” he said. “How to take a bad moment and turn it into a positive… to turn those feelings of pain and sorrow into something beautiful.”
“Bridging the gap.”
Originally, I Got Legs was simply a way for Gorlitsky to finance his own personal exoskeleton – a GoFundMe page that, if it caught on, would allow him to purchase his own set of legs and take them out into the world, beyond the hospital halls. Gorlitsky saw it as the first step towards turning his negative into a positive. Towards reclaiming yet another aspect of his life.
As always, however, he never wanted it to be about himself.
“Some people see a bad moment and try to make it even worse,” Gorlitsky said. “Instead of turning your situation into a positive, it’s very easy to dwell on it and not do anything about it.”
Thus, Gorlitsky made the decision to convert I Got Legs into a nonprofit, and turn his involvement in the Cooper River Bridge Run into the first of many races around the country, all aimed at raising awareness about the technology that’s redefining his new normal.
The purpose of I Got Legs is to create a safe environment that empowers and connects people with disabilities to their friends and family. Their mission is simple: like the Vocare and ReWalk devices, they aim to bridge the gap between what it means to be disabled and able-bodied.
“When I’m in this exoskeleton, I’m not really disabled anymore,” Gorlitsky said. “But I’m still not able-bodied. I’m bridging the gap. I feel re-enabled.”
Tapping into his inner-athlete, Gorlitsky hopes that by competing in these physical challenges around the country, his story can be used as a source of inspiration for others, helping them take the steps needed to turn their own negative – whatever that may be – into a strength. When he’s not walking, he travels to various speaking engagements, telling his story to the masses – and soaking in the stories they tell him in return.
“I basically walk and talk,” Gorlitsky said. “It’s kind of funny, because those are the two things I’m insecure about.”
In addition to raising awareness, he hopes to also raise money through his efforts, helping to put more exoskeletons in more rehab centers across the country. At $77,000 per exoskeleton, he hopes to eventually go after insurance companies, asking them to start covering the cost. In December of 2015, after waiting three months for his insurance company to either accept or deny the payment of his exoskeleton, Gorlitsky rattled off an email to ReWalk, exasperated with his lack of options.
“Over the past ten years of being permanently disabled, I have dealt with overt prejudice with my injury,” Gorlitsky wrote. “I refuse to let an insurance company or anyone else tell me when, and if, they will give me my legs… just like everything else I’ve accomplished over the past ten years, I’ll find a way to pay the rest.”
Hartigan agrees with his frustration, especially since insurance companies typically pay for prosthetics for people who have suffered limb amputations.
“I hope, as insurance companies see the benefits of people using these exoskeletons, they will start to cover them,” Hartigan said. “Because they’re not available to everybody… they’re expensive.”
The benefits go beyond just the ability to stand and walk; initial data indicates that exoskeletons have an extremely positive impact on overall health and wellness, including cardiovascular health, body composition, bowel, bladder and muscle strength, reduction in certain medications and the potential reduction in skin ulcers.
“You and I are told to walk every day,” Wass said. “So you can imagine what it’s going to do for a sedentary person in a wheelchair.”
They go beyond just spinal cord injuries, too; Wass stresses the future potential of this device to impact people who have suffered from a stroke, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, even elderly populations who struggle to stand up or walk on their own.
“Any lower limb disability,” he said. “In fact, if you look at our company’s mission, we’ve changed it from ‘people with spinal cord injuries’ to ‘people with lower limb disabilities.’”
I Got Legs has a similar mission – bridging the gap, not just for spinal cord injuries, but for people who face any kind of adversity, no matter the form. Once the nonprofit grows legs of it’s own, so to speak, Gorlitsky hopes to simply step back and watch, serving as nothing more than a spokesperson for a community of people who refuse to let life’s setbacks get in the way of their dreams.
“Unfortunately for me, you can touch and feel my vulnerability. But with other people, you can’t,” he said. “That’s why I love doing this. People ask me: ‘What’s I Got Legs?’ I tell them my vulnerable story, and it’s cool to get it out, but then, people start telling me their vulnerabilities and how they got through it, and now it’s back and forth. There’s a real power to that. Just listening to someone else’s life.”
And that’s the whole point of I Got Legs – even down to the name. It’s about shifting the focus away from Gorlitsky and towards others, simply using his story as the starting line in a race towards achieving a higher quality of life for all.
“When I first said ‘I got legs,’ it inspired me,” Gorlitsky said. “I could take ownership of it. But everyone else [saying it] would first think of me, but could eventually take ownership [of the phrase] with what it meant to them. And that’s what’s happening now.”
The I Got Legs website is peppered with a series of footprints, each print housing a different phrase: empathy, empowerment, accountability, self-expression, leadership and helping others. While the site features inspiring images of Gorlitsky standing in his exoskeleton, one slogan stands out in bold, echoing his repeated emphasis on the importance of involving others:
“I got legs,” the site says. “What do you stand on?”
“We’re all loosely connected.”
Since first trying on the exoskeleton a mere nine months ago, Gorlitsky’s life has changed into something he never knew possible. He walked 6.2 miles in seven hours, after doctors told him he’d never walk another step. He stood on a basketball court and sunk two three-pointers in a row. He’s being sponsored by Mercedes-Benz Vans of Charleston – a perfect fit, given their tagline, “Born to Run.” Last month, he sat in Arianna Huffington’s apartment in New York City while filming a drowsy driving PSA for The Huffington Post. He’s finally able to look his mother in the eyes as he hugs her.
“When I first met Adam, he said he was going to do the Bridge Run,” Wass said with a laugh. “And I was like, ‘Okay, let’s just learn how to use the device first.’ But obviously, Adam proved who he is. His pure determination… his pure will and drive and how he applies that to helping others… that speaks volumes for who he is as a person.
“A lot of people tell me: ‘You’re changing the world,’” Gorlitsky said. “And I’m like, ‘woah, stop.’ I want to change my world first with this life-changing technology, and then inspire, empower, educate and connect people to change their own worlds.”
He explains this mentality with, yet again, a movie reference. This time, it’s Joy, the true story about Joy Mangano, a selfless single mother of three who decides to take the future of her family into her own hands, breaking down her barriers and becoming a self-made millionaire with claim to over 100 patents. Gorlitsky describes the film as a story about the transformation from selfless to self-centered, a process he also finds himself going through.
“I feel like there are three different kinds of people,” Gorlitsky said. “There’s selfless, there’s selfish, and there’s self-centered. The selfish people, those are the narcissists. You have to be careful with those people. But being selfless is almost just as bad – you’re giving up so much of yourself. But that was me. I wasn’t putting my needs first. Being self-centered is about knowing yourself, and knowing what your needs and wants are, but putting others first, too.”
Gorlitsky’s race roster is impressive; on April 23, three weeks after crossing the finish line of the Cooper River Bridge Run, Gorlitsky participated in the Superheroes vs. Villains 5K in Beaufort, South Carolina – donned with his own robotic supersuit, he didn’t even need a costume to blend in. However, without a ReWalk technician available to charge the battery, his exoskeleton died before he could reach the finish line. Standing idle mere yards from the finish, Gorlitsky recalls being lifted into the air in the middle of the street, racers of all ages and backgrounds using their own legs to hoist him onto their shoulders and carry him to the end.
“Inspiration is reciprocal,” Gorlitsky said, remarking on how his mission may have inspired the people who carried him, but the acts of kindness he’s received throughout his journey have inspired him to keep going. “I think we’re all loosely connected, emotionally.”
On July 4, 2017 Gorlitsky aspires to participate in the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, Georgia. Not only is the Peachtree the largest 10K in the world, but the course runs right past the Shepherd Center – the very building where Gorlitsky sat across a boardroom full of doctors and was told he’d never walk again. The building that served him a fate he chose to ignore.
In the future, he hopes to complete a half marathon and eventually a full marathon, adding the number of steps it takes him to cross each finish line to his freshly inked forearm.
“I would walk the whole country if I could,” he said.
Coming from the lips of a man who speaks entirely in film references, it’s impossible to ignore the implications of that statement: walking the whole country, like a real-life Forrest Gump with the heart of Christopher Reeve, donned in a battery-powered exoskeleton instead of a red cape. Overcoming adversity, putting one foot in front of the other. He walks for the sake of walking. He walks to inspire. Because he can, because he’s free.
Because he got legs.