Tech, toys helping rehabilitation patients in recovery

Gwen Pratt uses a virtual game machine to help strengthen her core muscles after a fall that broke her pelvis. Pratt is a patient at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital.

Gwen Pratt uses a virtual game machine to help strengthen her core muscles after a fall that broke her pelvis. Pratt is a patient at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital.

Technology at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital is helping Jill Wirthlin regain her life one step at a time.

Wirthlin, a mother of four children under the age of 7, suffered a major heart attack and subsequent brain damage just before Thanksgiving.

Doctors kept her in a medically induced coma for three weeks, and a few days after she woke up, transferred her from Denver to HealthSouth in Colorado Springs to re-learn how to walk.

HealthSouth is where some of the state’s most advanced rehabilitation technology can be found. Just a few miles west, more of this technology can be found at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services.

The technology, some of which can be found in popular video game consoles, can make therapy appear like child’s play – though it’s anything but.

For example, the Wii gaming system can be found in many living rooms but is also catching on in rehab centers because it often involves getting players on their feet.

Of course, more high-tech machines are often required, and companies such as HealthSouth and Penrose-St. Francis spend tens of thousands of dollars for the latest equipment.

Rehabilitation services have been back in the news since Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords suffered a brain injury when she was shot at a Tucson supermarket parking lot in early January.

Wirthlin’s rehabilitation program involves using a robotic treadmill called an auto-ambulator. It moves a patient’s legs for them, while off-setting their body weight. The machine then adds the weight back as therapy progresses and muscles strengthen.

At Penrose-St. Francis, therapists use a “balance-master,” a plate-shaped object that records how well patients are standing on their own.

Measuring results is important because some insurance companies only pay for a certain number of physical therapy visits. Other programs, like Medicare and Medicaid, require proof that patients are progressing. Once progress stalls, so do payments.

“We have all the best toys,” said Andi McDonough, manager for outpatient rehabilitation at Penrose-St. Francis. “There’s no old-school comparison. This plate (balance master) gives you an objective measure of the patient’s progress.”

The newest addition at Penrose: the ERGYSbike, which allows patients with no voluntary leg movement to pedal using electronic stimulus.

“It’s a very interesting, very advanced piece of technology,” McDonough said. “Spinal-cord patients can work out their legs, glutes, quads, hamstrings.”

Patients with less-advanced cases of multiple sclerosis are able to shed leg braces and walk again, thanks to another piece of equipment that also relies on electronic pulses and slips into their shoes. When the patient lifts their leg, it lifts the foot, reducing drag.

“It’s amazing – and it’s pretty new. A generation ago, MS patients were confined to walkers or wheelchairs. That doesn’t have to happen now,” McDonough said.

In her 80s, Gwen Pratt used a machine at HealthSouth that allows her to pedal her hands, much like a cyclist would pedal a bike. The idea is to strengthen her upper body while she recovers from a fall that broke her pelvis. But the machine she’s working on does more than allow her to exercise.

The screen showed her racing an ATV through a track; occasionally, she did wheelies.

“Woo, I’m in the trees,” she said chuckling as her therapist, Danielle Farrar, stabilized her sternum to keep her standing as straight as possible.

“We might have to take that license away,” her husband said, laughing at his wife.

Since reimbursement rules require two hours of extensive therapy a day, anything to pass the time makes it easier, Pratt said.

“Used to be, an injury like mine, you’d be in bed for a long time, months probably,” she said. “I fell just before New Year’s and I’m up and moving around. It hurts, but the technology makes it more fun.”

While technology eases the monotony of daily physical therapy routines, all the therapists are quick to say that it only goes hand-in-hand with their patients’ determination to get better.

That’s the case with Withrlin.

“It’s amazing to watch Jill, and see how far she’s come,” said physical therapist Ashley Miranda. “And it’s due to her will – and to her family’s help. Patients are really the ones doing the work – the technology just assists their efforts.”

“When she first got here, she couldn’t even hold her head up,” Miranda added. “She’s really come a long way. I’m confident she’ll be walking again.”