Innovative equipment helps neuro patients walk

Daniel Curtis uses the SafeGait 360 twice a week, and says its helped him shatter goals (Courtesy, University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences)
Daniel Curtis uses the SafeGait 360 twice a week, and says its helped him shatter goals (Courtesy, University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — At age 29, Daniel Curtis came close to losing his life. He was trying to dive in his backyard pool when he slipped, breaking his neck. He was alone at the time, and started to drown.

“My girlfriend came home, she saw me floating and thought I was joking,” said Curtis. “She realized I wasn’t, pulled me out and gave me CPR. Fortunately for me, she was an ICU nurse and it was a good fit.”

While he survived, the accident left him paralyzed. Curtis has some function in his right leg, but cannot walk. He also has nerve impairment in his arms and hands.

For the next two years, Curtis underwent intense out-patient therapy. He felt he’d hit his plateau in rehab, but now has access to a piece of equipment that’s helping him shatter his goals.

It’s called the SafeGait 360 Balance and Mobility Trainer, installed at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences Austin Campus. University officials say it’s the first of its kind to be easily accessible to patients in the Austin area, at no cost to them.

“We have a very different approach to just using this to help somebody not fall, we’re really using this to help retrain the nervous system,” said Liz Ardolino, Assistant Professor at USAHS. “We really are trying to establish a pro bono clinic here, we really don’t want to charge people for this.”

The device works to mitigate the risk of injury from falls, with its body-weight support and fall protection system. It can distinguish between a patient’s intentional downward movement and when a patient is actually falling. This allows therapists to easily modify fall protection sensitivity to accommodate and challenge patients at varying stages of independence.

“It’s happened [falling], it’s not fun, I think for the patient or the therapist,” said Curtis. “The SafeGait kind of takes all that away. You could try to face-plant on this thing, it won’t let you. Knowing that, I’m able to kind of push myself beyond the threshold I would be able to otherwise.”

Curtis says he wanted to use the SafeGait in the first two years after his injury, but it was only available in Houston. And even with insurance, it would have cost $1,000 a week.

The equipment can help patients who’ve suffered a neurological injury such as stroke, spinal cord injury, spina bifida, multiple sclerosis and traumatic brain injury. It’s also used when working with geriatric patients who are at risk of injury for falls.

“The great thing about the SafeGait is if somebody does start to fall, the machine can sense that and will stop them from falling,” said Ardolino. “But sometimes people need to learn how to fall. If you think about kids as they’re learning how to walk, babies fall all the time, that’s how our nervous system learns how to walk and how to prevent a fall. So we do want people with nervous system disorders to fall occasionally, but we just want them to fall in safe way.”

Ardolino says the students are developing a plan for a pro bono clinic, in order to offer the SafeGait to more patients.

The university currently has what’s called POINT Labs, where children and adults with neurological disorders can get evaluated and treated by students, under the direct supervision of faculty members. The labs run several times through the year for four to five weeks at a time.

If you’ve suffered a neurological injury and want to participate in the research and physical therapy clinics at USAHS, contact Assistant Professor Liz Ardolino at eardolino@usa.edu.

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