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​New Therapeutic Tech Program Helps Patients Get Back in the Game

March 29, 2016

Cody Williams has always been a gamer. From Skyrim to Call of Duty, he loves playing sci-fi and fantasy games with his friends. His love for gaming even led him to earn a certificate in computer technology.

But when Williams sustained a spinal cord injury in a rollover motor vehicle accident in Wyoming, he wasn’t sure he would ever be able to return to his favorite hobby.

On a recent Thursday night in the fourth floor bistro, Williams was able to play a racing game against another patient, trying out several different types of adaptive controllers.

“I miss having the full use of my hands,” says the Craig Hospital inpatient. “But I have some movement in my right index finger and thumb, and with this controller I’m able to rotate my wrist to use the buttons.”

Williams is participating in a new pilot Therapeutic Gaming program at Craig Hospital, a joint effort of Craig’s donor-funded Assistive Technology, Therapeutic Recreation and Rehabilitation Engineering departments. The project’s goal is to use this popular mode of recreation and leisure to address social, physical and occupational therapy rehabilitation goals.

“This program really started at the patient level,” says Erin Muston-Firsch, Assistive Technology specialist. “We had a patient who was really having a hard time engaging in the rehabilitation process because gaming was his primary interest, and he felt like it had been taken away.”

The floor therapists worked together to figure out a way to help him return to gaming, turning to Muston-Firsch, who consulted with Patrick Wagner, a Craig rehabilitation engineer.

Wagner modified a controller to allow the patient to play by using sip-and-puff technology and the Tech Lab set him up with a special mouse and voice recognition software.

“Once we were set up, his whole attitude to being at Craig changed. Other patients would show up in his room, and it became a social event. We realized there are social implications to gaming, and we were just scratching the surface.”

Muston-Firsch, Wagner and the Therapeutic Recreation department approached the Craig Hospital Foundation with the idea. The Foundation applied for assistance and received funding from Craig H. Nielsen Foundation and an anonymous organization to implement the program.

Patients are referred to the program through their occupational, speech or recreational therapist. They meet in one-on-one sessions with Assistive Technology therapists to explore their options. Once a week, therapists host a gaming night in a hospital bistro, where any patient is able to drop by, check out the equipment, play games and enjoy refreshments.

“We will give patients the chance to try out different commercially available adaptive controllers, but if those don’t work, Patrick can modify a system based on their individual needs,” says Muston-Firsch.

According to Jill Baldessari, Assistive Technology supervisor, the primary goal of the program is to get the patient access to the game. Once access has been accomplished, therapists will modify the experience to make it more challenging, to help the patient work on his or her therapy goals of increasing balance, dexterity, strength or endurance. Increasing upper extremity ability though gaming can help with eating, dressing, bathing and other functional activities. In this sense, the game motivates patients to make progress towards independence.

The team sees other psycho-social benefits as well. The gaming project has the potential to nurture relationships established between Craig patients and allow them to stay in contact by gaming online after discharge. It also serves as motivation to return to a full and active life.

“We’re not only getting them stronger and giving them something to do with their peers at Craig, we’re giving them something to do with their friends back home,” says Muston-Firsch. “When you go back home, you’re different—but online and in the game, everyone’s the same.”

Wagner agrees. “It’s beyond entertainment. In a video game, you can be a race car driver or a hunter, expanding your experience and strengthening you emotionally,” he says. “Once you’ve done it virtually, you might be motivated to try that experience in real life — something Craig can help you to achieve.”

Following his experience trying out an adaptive controller at Gaming Night, Cody Williams plans to have a family member bring his gaming system to his room at Craig.

“I’m going to go back to playing,” he says. “I can’t wait to get home, be with my friends and get back to tinkering.”

Engineering Answers

Beyond video games, Patrick Wagner sees the Gaming Program as a jumping off point for future innovation. An electrical engineer, Wagner plans to adapt what he’s learning through the project and use it to benefit other Craig patient and graduates.

“The goal is to develop a set of tools — a digital interface — and write the software behind it so we can adapt existing technologies for a variety of needs.”

Wagner envisions applying this software to adaptive interfaces for computers, environmental controls, augmentative communication devices, manipulation aids and therapeutic recreation equipment such as fishing rods, guns and archery equipment. He hopes that the open-source software could be shared widely to help others as well.

The son of a Craig graduate, Wagner joined the Rehab Engineering department in 2015, joining veteran mechanical engineer Dave Birkle and a dedicated team of volunteers. The department designs, develops, modifies and applies rehabilitative and assistive technology, providing customized solutions to meet patient needs.

While some of the department’s work is covered by insurance, the department relies on funding from the Craig Hospital Foundation’s Patient Assistance Funds to cover many costs.

“What Craig does is very unique outside of academic settings,” says Wagner. “Most hospitals don’t have anything like it at all.”

“We are building devices that deliver better care immediately.”