Published: 10:00, 04 February 2016
A man left paralysed in a crash hopes a robot will make his dream come true - to walk his bride down the aisle.
Five years ago Ben Barnes lay paralysed in a hospital bed with a broken back.
The once-fit young man had been given the shocking news he would never walk again.
Since then, like many condemned to a wheelchair, he has had to deal with the loss of independence, discomfort and emotional trauma.
But a chance meeting between his legal team and a leading British neuro-physiotherapist has led to him being given the chance of precious mobility.
Because now Ben has an £80,000 robotic walking ‘suit’ which has transformed his life.
And it means he can proudly stand tall this summer when he and long-term sweetheart, Charlotte Simmonds, tie the knot in what is bound to be an especially moving ceremony.
Former roofer Ben, 31, who lives in Boughton, said: “I almost cannot find the words to describe what a difference it has made.
“Just to be able to stand up sends what I can only describe as a ‘rush’ through my body and I feel the blood flowing into my legs.
“Before I got the device, I was thinking about what it would be like to be in a wheelchair at my wedding and not be able to walk Charlotte down the aisle.
“Now I feel so much happier I will be able to stand beside her.”
Trainee paramedic Charlotte, 25, has watched Ben’s remarkable recovery from the devastating injuries he suffered when a ‘friend’, who was drunk at the wheel, crashed and overturned the car near Richborough.
Ben said: “I don’t remember much about the accident but when I got to Margate hospital I knew it wasn’t great. I was on so many drugs I was a bit out of it.
“When I was taken to the spinal specialist at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in London, I was asking the doctors what was going on but they just said I had to lay on my back and be still for six weeks because of the swelling around my spine.
“My aunt is a nurse in A&E and she spoke to the surgeon, who explained that if you can’t feel or move your legs after the first three months, it’s probably a sign you won’t walk again.”
But Ben faced the devastating news with remarkable stoicism and immediately began looking to his future.
He said: “I just thought, ‘OK, what’s next, how do we get on with it?’
“I’d been pretty fit before and regularly in the gym so I can’t downplay it, but I never thought ‘poor me’.
“I never had that attitude and just thought let’s get on with life and see what I can do.
“But I had a lot of other injuries which also had to repair first.
“I had to get used to being in a wheelchair and think what I was going to do because I had my own roofing business before the crash.”
Ben credits his physiotherapist, Jon Graham, for pushing him and accelerating his recovery.
It was he who also drew Ben’s attention to the revolutionary Rex Bionics walking device and Ben’s legal team began exploring the possibility of acquiring one for him as part of his personal injury compensation.
Now, following a landmark High Court ruling, he last week received a Rex, the world’s first independently-controlled robotic walking aid.
Ben said: “When I first tried it, I thought ‘wow’ and then when I had one tailormade for me, it was amazing.
“I’m still getting used to it and it felt a bit weird at first.
“It’s the little things, like being able look people in the eye, that make so much difference.”
Despite his accident, Ben has not lost his passion for cars and drives an adapted Jaguar XKR.
He said: “There is no doubt it [the suit] will change my life for the better and it has really lifted my mood and made me so much happier.
“I proposed to Charlotte in November 2014, but I was worried about pictures of me at my wedding in a wheelchair, which would be like a reminder of my predicament.
“To be able to stand up and exchange my vows and walk down the aisle with her will be amazing.”
“To be able to stand up and exchange my vows and walk down the aisle with her will be amazing” - Ben Barnes
The accident which left Ben paralysed was caused by friend David Ord, who was drunk at the wheel of a Ford Fiesta when it overturned.
Ben, who had accepted a lift home on the night, suffered chest injuries, a collapsed lung and dislocation of his ninth and 10th vertebrae.
David Ord was breathalysed later on the same day of the crash because of police suspicions.
The reading was within the legal drink-drive limit but a back calculation revealed he would have been between two-and-a-half to three times over the limit when driving.
He admitted driving while unfit through drink and leaving the scene of an accident and was jailed for 20 months.