Balancing Act  

New program helps people regain their footing

Nathan Hammer first came into the Community Hospital Rehabilitation Services department in a wheelchair. Now he walks in, assisted by no more than a cane, a success story achieved through his hard work and the hospital's new balance program.

Nathan Hammer Nathan Hammer

"I still feel safer with a cane, but hopefully within a year I'll be without a cane everywhere I go. That's my goal."

Hammer, 23, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2005, leading to extensive treatment that included two brain surgeries. He was bedridden and nearly paralyzed for three months. When it was time to move to the recovery phase of his care, he started rehabilitation at Community Hospital to restore his ability to stand, walk, and speak. When the balance program opened, Hammer was among its first patients.

Using the latest in computer technology from NeuroCom International, the balance program was established to help patients who have difficulty standing and walking as a result of stroke, injury, aging, cancer, multiple sclerosis, vertigo, or a whole host of other conditions and circumstances.

"I have been going to the rehabilitation department for more than two years now," says Hammer, "and the balance program is better than anything I've done. When I first started going there, I was in a wheelchair. Then I had a walker, and now I have a cane. When I'm there, I don't use anything. I still feel safer with a cane, but hopefully within a year I'll be without a cane everywhere I go. That's my goal."

Of particular help to Hammer is the confidence instilled by a sturdy harness he wears during his rehabilitation sessions. Attached to a rail in the ceiling, it enables him to practice walking across stable and unstable surfaces, trusting that, even if he loses balance, he will not fall.

"For people with balance issues," says Alain Claudel, doctor of physical therapy and director of Rehabilitation Services, "fear of falling is a very legitimate concern that needs to be addressed. We recognized this need in our community and acquired the tools to help. Restoring balance - and confidence - keeps people from falling and sustaining injuries such as broken hips. There is a lot at stake: Up to one-third of patients end up living in a nursing home after a hip fracture.

"The balance program helps patients fine-tune or work on the very basic elements of balance in an effort to create the stability and security necessary to a good quality of life."

Seiji Aizawa, 83, had been walking with a cane for more than 50 years when he underwent surgery to replace his knee, which had severe cartilage issues. Although his new knee worked well enough that he could abandon the cane, he found that, after that many years of leaning to one side, his balance was off, and he felt too unstable to walk without his cane.

Seiji AizawaSeiji Aizawa

"They placed me inside the balance management system, a box the size of a telephone booth, where I stood on a platform and rocked forward and back, and side to side. Through this they determined that my vestibular system was not working too well."

"Because I had used a cane for so long," says Aizawa, "I walked a little bit differently, leaning to one side. I found this had affected my vestibular [inner ear balance] system, making it difficult to balance without the cane."

When he learned about the balance program, he thought it might help. With a referral from the orthopedic surgeon who replaced his knee, Aizawa made an appointment at Community Hospital and underwent an evaluation.

"They had me walk in a straight line to see how my gait was," he says, "and they had me walk up and down the hallway and a flight of stairs. They also laid me down on a table and moved my legs back and forth to see how they worked. The second day was when it got interesting. They placed me inside the balance management system, a box the size of a telephone booth, where I stood on a platform and rocked forward and back, and side to side. Through this they determined that my vestibular system was not working too well."

Based on the evaluation, Eric Folkins, a doctor of physical therapy and certified vestibular therapist, devised a program through which Aizawa could exercise his vision and his balance. Today, Aizawa walks upright without a cane; and he is planning to travel to Russia, China, and Finland, where he intends to do some walking - with confidence.

The balance program also uses a computerized platform that directs a patient's movement and then records it for reproduction on a computer monitor. And it employs the Wii FitTM, a computer program that simulates participation in sports such as slalom skiing. The result is training in exercise, balance, and movement.

"Our goal," says Claudel, "is to improve stability and quality of life. We're not trying to just buy a few more years on the golf course, the ski slope, or along the shore, but to help patients participate with confidence in all aspects of daily life."

If you would like more information about the balance program, please contact your doctor for a referral, call Rehabilitation Services at 625-4835.