Virtual rehab

It might look like a mere video game, but this new technology helps patients improve physical function
by: Jim Clark Physical therapy for Judy DeCourcy of Gresham, a patient at Marquis Centennial in Southeast Portland, includes activities using the OmniVR virtual-reality rehab system.

How many bunches of grapes can the fox catch in his mouth? It's up to Judy DeCourcy, who controls the cartoon-animal image jumping around on the large TV screen in front of her.

DeCourcy is a patient at Marquis Centennial, a skilled-nursing and rehab facility in Southeast Portland near Gresham. She is working to regain motor control following a stroke that affected her speech and the right side of her body. And this fox-and-grapes game - which is more than a game - plays a key role in her physical rehabilitation.

Seated in a wheelchair in front of the screen, DeCourcy moves the fox by moving her body. When she shifts to the left, the fox skitters to the left to try to catch the grapes. When she leans to the right, the fox moves to the right toward another bunch.

And while DeCourcy concentrates on moving the fox, Julie Cortez, a physical therapy assistant at Marquis Centennial, watches how DeCourcy moves.

'Judy's challenge is she doesn't like to lean to the right, and this is encouraging her,' Cortez says.

Welcome to the new world of virtual rehab technology. Marquis Centennial - part of Marquis Companies, which has facilities all over the nation - recently began using the OmniVR™ Rehabilitation System developed by a Reno-based company called Accelerated Care Plus.

The OmniVR™ is similar to Nintendo Wii and Wii Fit programs, but it's physical therapy designed for aging adults who have greater physical limitations.

Patients can choose from a list of virtual activities grouped together in six different programs - some are designed for patients who are seated, some are to be done while standing or walking, others are cognitive exercises. The system includes a camera that monitors the patient's image and places it in a virtual exercise environment.

By rebuilding their strength, balance and coordination, patients can continue performing everyday tasks 'as simple as putting on your shoes, things we take for granted every single day,' says Nancy Bishop, rehab director at Marquis Centennial.

The difference between virtual rehab and traditional rehab with a physical therapist, Cortez says, is that frankly, rehab exercises can become repetitious and boring.

If DeCourcy were undergoing regular physical therapy without the virtual program, 'we'd be doing the same type of exercises, but she wouldn't have the same type of motivation,' Cortez says.

DeCourcy agrees that the virtual activities keep rehab interesting. 'This is more challenging,' she says.

And after about a month with the OmviVR™ DeCourcy can see she's improved. A computer printout of her latest results from the fox-and-grapes game shows that her fox caught 36 percent of the grapes that fell on the right side, compared to just 17 percent the last time she did this. DeCourcy smiles.

'My right side is better,' she says.