Dr. House beats obstacles to be leader at Penrose

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1on1-DrHouseThe skiing accident that paralyzed Glen House when he was 20 did not immobilize him. Instead, the upbeat, athletic college junior simply asked, “What’s next?” and moved on to graduate from college, medical school and to fulfill his residency and internship programs in rehabilitative medicine.

In a wheelchair.

In 2001, Dr. House arrived in Colorado Springs with his wife. Now 44 and with two daughters, he works as the director of rehabilitative medicine at Penrose Hospital. House is also an entrepreneur, inventing a self-administered catheter for people with limited dexterity and helping invent and develop a program through the nonprofit FalconWorks.

Do any of your patients mention the House television program?

Every single patient. It’s always a good ice-breaker. I have “G. House” on my name tag and his name is Greg House. He has a disability, and so do I.

Tell us about your job.

I’m a medical director at Penrose — that’s my day job. We’re making this into a neuro-trauma unit. We really focus on brain injury, stroke, spinal cord injury and any other neurological conditions like Guillain-Barré, multiple sclerosis and major trauma patients. We spend a lot of time developing and training staff, and our outcomes usually exceed the nation and region, especially in stroke. We’ve got a great program. We’ve got great technology and staff.

We get the patients on to rehab typically within a couple of days. We start the rehabilitation process even in the ICU, and then we transition that when they move up to rehab. That’s where we see the best outcome. Our whole focus is on function: whether they can walk or not, whether they can talk or not, it’s all about function — getting them back to life as much as they can. We follow that as outpatient services. We often follow them forever.

How did you decide on medicine and your specialty in medicine?  

I always knew I wanted to do something in medicine, but I didn’t know what. Originally I wanted to be a veterinarian. One day I spent working on large animals in the morning and small animals in the afternoon. They gave me a glove that went to my shoulder. It took about one day to realize that wasn’t what I wanted to do. My sister had major dental work, so I was actually on track to take the dental exam (to enter dental school). I’d always get together with my dentist when I went home for college breaks. We were actually scheduled for lunch the day after I broke my neck. I’m lying there saying, “Can you call him and tell him I won’t make it?”

Please talk about your accident.

I started skiing in first grade, and in second grade, I started racing. I raced for five to six years, then I got more into freestyle. I liked to be kind of hot-dogging, an extreme skier. During the semester break my junior year of college, my dad was kind enough to let me go to Snowbird, Utah, with a friend of mine. There was a cliff run at the top that was closed all day. I don’t know why at the end of the day it was open, right next to signs that said “DANGER,” “CLIFF,” “DON’T SKI HERE,” but that was very attractive to a 20-year-old.

I hit a rock, hit my head, broke my seventh vertebrae in my neck. I was immediately paralyzed. We were almost out of bounds on one of the last runs of the day; skiing traffic is not going by. Eventually, the ski patrol on their last sweep heard my friend screaming.

How were you able to emotionally move on?

It was never a thought not to. It never crossed my mind. It was more about what do I have to do to do it, not am I going to. I took one semester off. I went back that summer trying to catch up. I still graduated a semester behind in medical and biomedical science. That was a whole adjustment, traveling across campus in a wheelchair. You trade in your red Mustang for a van, and for a 20-year-old, that’s a hard thing to do.

I knew the whole time I wanted to go into rehab. … I had experienced it. I wanted to know the most of anybody about my condition, instead of some other doctor knowing more.

Tell us about your invention. 

It’s a catheter that is the best and easiest product out there. The company is something I started about 14 years ago, at 2 o’clock in the morning while I was an intern, sitting in the ICU, watching a nurse put a suction tube down in a man’s lung. I knew nothing about business, how to start a product. It’s one of those things I’m glad I didn’t know at the time how difficult it would be and how much work goes into it. That was 14 years, almost $5 million and 14 patents ago. I spend about 30 hours a week on it.

Share with us about FalconWorks.

FalconWorks is a nonprofit that brings engineers and other bright minds together to help build solutions for people with neurological injuries. I came up with NeuMimic, where a therapist takes them through a motion. The motion is recorded, then the patient tries to go through that motion on their own. It records what they do. The whole premise of this is that repetition leads to better recovery.

All these really brilliant students took this idea and came up with the product, and we’ve worked on it together. They’ve worked on it for two years. It’s a great product. We use it here. In therapist mode, it records their baseline motions. When you give them an assignment, like 10 reps, it’s in patient mode. The program monitors them in 3D and records the patient’s progress. It adds more therapy than you would normally do. We asked, how are we going to help these people get better and faster? More reps and recording and giving feedback to the therapist.

You’ve climbed Pikes Peak. Tell us about that.

It’s the Pikes Peak Challenge to raise money for brain injuries. I’ve done it four times. I’m going to train to do it again this summer. Last summer, I did it with my daughter, who walked with me the whole time. It’s a walk up Barr Trail. I said I can’t go up Barr Trail, but I can go up the road.

Climbers climb 131/2 miles; I went to the top and drove down 131/2 miles, so that’s where I start, at Crystal Reservoir. I start at 5 in the morning like everybody else. It’s really hard. It’s an endurance thing. Last time, it took eight hours. I use an e-motion, a push-assist wheelchair. When you hit the rim (of the wheels), it gives you some assistance. You still have to push. It’s like if you had a mountain bike you could do it, but it would be difficult if you had a one-speed bike. 

They open the road early for me, which is really cool because it’s closed until 8. It’s such a cool feeling watching the sun come up while you’re going up Pikes Peak and no one’s there.

It’s just so cool.