Device helps W.Va. patients learn to walk again

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — James Butch was recovering from an April 2011 stroke, but when his progression had slowed earlier this year, his physical therapist, Kelly McGrew, made a suggestion.

“Kelly got me walking pretty good with the cane, but I wasn’t walking very fast,” Butch recalled. “She said, ‘I know what we need to get you walking faster. We need to get you a treadmill you can’t fall down on.'”

Butch’s stroke had rendered him unable to use his left leg. He had started walking with physical therapy at Thomas Memorial Hospital. The hospital didn’t have the equipment McGrew thought he needed to improve even more — an unweighting system.

The system allows patients to be harnessed above a treadmill or elsewhere. The harness supports some of a patient’s weight while they’re learning to walk again. A computer system tracks the patient’s speed and other measures of progress.

“(The unweighing system) gets you to the next level because it’s repetition,” McGrew said. “With strokes, you want to do repetition, repetition, repetition because that’s how they recover.”

The hospital’s budget didn’t have the money for the $20,000 equipment. But, McGrew told Butch, they only needed $5,000 — the Foundation for the Thomas Memorial and Saint Francis Hospitals would pay the rest.

“So I made arrangements to hand them a $5,000 check,” said Butch, the president of Eagle Research Corp.

Butch is a frequent donor to Thomas Memorial, he said. “Good people doing good work need to be supported,” he said.

South Charleston’s Thomas Memorial got the Biodex Unweighing System about four months ago and is the only hospital in the area with one, said Donna Gorton-Childers, director of physical therapy for the hospital.

Charleston Area Medical Center has a similar system for inpatient therapy and may get a system for outpatient therapy, spokesman Dale Witte said.

The system is fairly new, Gorton-Childers said. It’s been on the market for only about two years.

The system is safer both for the patient, who has no risk of falling, and the physical therapist, who no longer has to support the patient while he or she is learning to walk again, Gorton-Childers said.

After his stroke — which he suffered while visiting Dolly Sods with his family in April 2011 — Butch spent a week in ICU at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown.

He was then taken to CAMC General for further treatment. When he was released, he started physical therapy at Thomas Memorial.

“When I started searching around, I found that this was the best around for outpatient (physical therapy),” Butch said. “I got Kelly’s name and Donna’s name as being the best (physical therapists), so I signed up with Kelly here and she’s been doing a great job.”

Butch said the system gives him confidence that he won’t fall when walking on the treadmill.

“If you fall, you just hang there like a trout on a string,” Butch said.

McGrew said the unweighting system has helped improve Butch’s speed and balance. Before using the system during one six-minute walking test, he walked 250 feet. A month later, in a walking test for the same amount of time, he walked 391 feet, McGrew said.

Stroke patients are not the only ones who improve with the machine. Multiple sclerosis patients also use it, and McGrew said she is going to try it with patients with spinal cord injuries. Besides walking on the treadmill, it can also be used for patients learning to go from a sitting to a standing position and those walking without a treadmill, McGrew said.

Butch undergoes physical therapy with McGrew twice a week. Besides the machine, he also credits McGrew for his progress. She’s tough on him, he said.

“If you ever decide that PT is boring to you, you could always go to the Army or the Navy and train Navy SEALs or Green Berets,” he joked to McGrew one Tuesday morning during his physical therapy session.

“I love you too,” she fired back.

Information from: The Charleston Gazette,