Denver hositpal uses Nintendo for rehabilitation
DENVER, Colorado ” For someone who can’t close his fingers into a fist, the 33-year-old guy in the wheelchair sure packs a wallop.
Bam! Ooof! Golden sparks erupt as he lands punch after punch on his opponent’s mug. Sure, the other guy might be hamstrung by the fact that “I can’t use my right hand,” but the carnage doesn’t stop.
Too freakin’ bad – that’s what the look on James Hammen’s face says as he continues pummeling Casey Harnack who, despite his sunny disposition, insists “I’m always competitive.”
Today, that’s not enough. Hammen’s arms move in heavy, compact arcs. Side to side. Back and forth. One knockdown. Then two. He whales away. Bam! Wham! Oof!
“Man, James, you’re wearing me out,” says Harnack, 30, smiling even as he finally goes down for the count in the second round.
“I’m the champion of the world,” deadpans Hammen.
At least the world of Wii-habilitation as it’s practiced at Craig Hospital, the rehabilitative citadel where those who are paralyzed or suffering from brain injuries now have the opportunity to inject fun and games into their arduous regimen of physical and occupational therapy.
For those of you who are either unhip or technophobic, the Wii (wee) is merely the hottest video game around. The brainchild of Nintendo, it uses hand-held motion-sensitive controls that require competitors to use different body movements – throwing, swaying, flicking a wrist – to make the on-screen figures play different sports, such as tennis, bowling, boxing and baseball. As it turns out, many of the movements that activate the Wii are applicable to the therapies used in the treatment of the disabled.
“Wii-hab” (as Craig therapist Heather Horii calls it) is, technically, not a therapy, meaning insurance companies can’t be billed for it. Still, “It is an intervention, or modality, that can help provide a therapy,” says Craig director of physical therapy Darrell Musick.
With a smile, he says, “Sometimes PT is called ‘pain and torture.’ But with the Wii, the work can sometimes feel like play.”
The 19-year-old guy in the wheelchair is being out-bowled by by the 45-year-old woman with the traumatic brain injury. And he is not one bit pleased.
“Man, she’s going to whup me,” says Kyle Detomasi, his voice a chorus of surprise and dismay as Renee Stabila flings a silver-blue cyber bowling ball at ten helpless pins. “If I wasn’t in my (wheel)chair, I’d be doing the whuppin’.”
This is Detomasi’s first try at bowling and, unlike Stabila, he isn’t standing and can only use his left wrist, not his arm. Still, the sting of a 148-57 drubbing is too much for his pride. He needs to redeem himself. He needs to assert himself. He needs –
“Mom, come play tennis with me!” he calls to his mother Arlene, competitive juices boiling.
His temporary setback on the Wii lanes notwithstanding, Detomasi gives a thumbs up to the therapeutic way of the Wii.
“It’s kinda cool,” he says. “It’s a break from the normal grueling day of being scrunched and torqued. It’s painless. It’s fun.”
“The Wii adds a dimension that’s difficult to find in ‘normal’ therapy,” says Musick. “It’s a goal-oriented, it’s competition-oriented. It engages patients in a fun and interactive way.”
Additionally, “It stretches their comfort zone in a distracting way. They do things that might be reluctant to do in another setting.”
In other words, the Wii “disguises the fact that we’re working with them on balance, strength and proprioception,” says therapist Rachel Carter, invoking therapist speak for the ability to sense the position, location and movement of the body and its parts.
Although Carter acknowledges that younger patients – who have been suckled on video games – have an initial affinity to the Wii, that edge is short-lived.
“Some of the older guys might be intimidated at first,” but within 30 minutes of watching and playing, they’re going at it pretty good,” says Carter.
Then, smiling at the memory of the just concluded Hammen-Harnack bout, she adds, “The Wii can be pretty good cardio sometimes. They’re really moving their arms and their bodies.”
Frequently, they’re so zoned in on the screen, so intent on hitting a baseball, nailing a spare or landing that punch, that for a few frozen moments they’re someplace other than a wheelchair. Says Carter, “The Wii is an equalizer.”
Precisely what Alissa Thibeault had in mind a year ago when she lobbied Musick for a Wii for Craig.
A physical therapist, she saw the way players “twist and lean and reach,” and quickly divined its applicability to her patients. She foresaw that quadriplegics who are learning to do things like brush their hair while maintaining balance as they sit would find Wii a break from drudgery.
Problem was, when Thibeault approached Musick about the Wii, his response was “Wha?” But if he didn’t know what a Wii was in June, Musick sure did by Christmas. After purchasing one for his kids and watching them go at it, the light bulb in his head flashed on and – Wii-haw! – he bought one for the hospital in January.
It proved such an asset that Craig obtained another a month later. Soon, a third Wii will be added to its therapy arsenal thanks to the largesse of Stabila’s family.
Although Stabila is no video game junkie, she says the Wii is “really good for eye-hand coordination.” And as she makes her way back from the horrific car crash that left her in a coma for four weeks and confronts what her husband Sal called “a perpetual healing process,” she’s discovered the Wii is “well, just fun.”
Harnack would probably agree. Sure, he’s “pretty wore out” as therapist Horii unwraps the bandages securing the game consoles to his hands. Sure, he’s feeling “not so good. I don’t get knocked down like that in real life.” Sure, he knows “it’s a game, but still. . .”
Still, he knows he’s going to work at Wii boxing. He knows there’s going to be a rematch with Hammen. He knows that soon enough, there’s just might be a new champion of the world.