ReWalkin’ That Walk
Marcela Turnage made her public debut in a 2014 Baltimore Sun article on the ReWalk exoskeleton. Since then she’s become one of the faces of the company and has enjoyed a wild ride around the world.
As a “ReWalker,” Marcela Turnage gets to do two of her favorite things. One, show off the ReWalk exoskeleton and talk about how it has changed her life. Two, travel around the country and the world.
Turnage, a T12 para since a 2002 car accident, is a passionate spokeswoman for ReWalk’s technology.
“The ReWalk has done beautiful things for me,” she says. “I can’t say enough about it.” Since she first started using the exoskeleton in 2014, Turnage has enjoyed multiple benefits, including a reduction in pain and improved bladder control. Last year Turnage developed an even deeper appreciation as the ReWalk helped expedite the healing of a broken tibia. “Before I wasn’t as loud about the benefits, but now that I see the proof of how it helped me and how it really helps me to get better and heal my bones, I’m all over it,” she says, “ReWalk, ReWalk, ReWalk, ReWalk, ReWalk! I cannot breathe without ReWalk.”
The broken tibia didn’t stop Turnage from a whirlwind travel year that would make even the most frequent of frequent flyers jealous. In 2017 alone, she traveled all over the U.S. and visited Spain, Argentina, Peru, Germany and the Netherlands. Through her travels, she met countless doctors, researchers and dignitaries, including the Real Madrid soccer team, the president of Israel, the king and the prime minister of Spain and the vice president of Argentina.
Meeting the vice president of Argentina, Gabriela Michetti, had special meaning for Turnage, as she is also a wheelchair user. “It was incredibly meaningful to see another female wheelchair user who has risen so high in politics,” says Turnage, who is of Peruvian descent. “I got to share a meal with her and show her how the ReWalk works.”
Argentina provided a first-hand example of the difference an outspoken wheelchair user can make. “It often seems like so many nondisabled politicians pay lip service to disability issues,” says Turnage, “but [Michetti] has shown a real commitment to working with people with disabilities and advocating for a more accessible society.”
Turnage has not talked with Michetti since the meeting, but keeps up via Instagram. “I asked her if we could meet up some other time to talk more, but she is so busy,” she says.
Traveling abroad has reinforced to Turnage the need for continued advocacy to improve accessibility. “In Europe, everything seemed inaccessible,” she says. “Even something as simple as going to the bathroom was a nightmare.”
As life-changing as the ReWalk has been for her, Turnage’s travels have inspired her to dream even bigger. After being carried to the top of Macchu Picchu on a recent trip, she dreamed of a next-level exoskeleton that would give her the freedom to explore wherever she so desires. “The ReWalk is great, but I would love to go hiking,” she says. “The world is so beautiful, but there are so many places you just can’t go in a chair. It would be nice to have an exoskeleton that let me do whatever I want. That would be awesome.”
It will be tough to top 2017 when it comes to adventure, but now that Turnage’s tibia is fully healed, she is excited about 2018. She is planning to live abroad for a month or two in the summer and hopes to keep traveling and working to help others with spinal cord injuries live their lives to the fullest.
Life Goals: Helping Others Adjust
No matter how busy her travel or work schedule, Marcela finds time to be a peer mentor at local hospitals. She often shows up with nothing but a smile, a United Spinal New Beginnings backpack and an open ear.
“Getting people with new injuries to talk can be hard sometimes, because they don’t always want to accept their new reality. But there is real value in hanging out with, or getting to know, people who have gone through the same things you have. When I visit, I make a point of not giving any advice at first. If you go in and are pitying them or talking all about your own accomplishments, you’re not really helping. No one wants to hear any more advice. They’re probably still grieving. They’re still mourning. So I go, smile, be positive and ask, ‘How can I help? Just let me know.’ I want to give them a good impression. My goal is to be a friend, someone who will listen. They need to know they can be happy and live their lives in a wheelchair. It’s not the end of the world.”
Favorite Sports: I love water skiing and jet skiing, but sled hockey is my favorite. The adrenaline and the competition keep me coming back.
Key to Success: I’ve always been an independent woman. I never think of my life as being hard, because I know it could be worse.
Why I Joined United Spinal: I joined because I wanted to help people with new injuries as a peer mentor. Being a member is amazing because it allows me to meet so many people around the country and to get more involved, both locally and nationally.