Sep 03, 2013 7:00 AM

Author: Gentry Reinhart

University of Utah Health Care will unveil leading edge prototypes of recreation equipment designed to get spinal cord injury patients back to the outdoors. The debut will take place at the Academy of Spinal Cord Injury Professionals Conference in Las Vegas on Tuesday, September 3.

Among the pieces on display will be a one-of-a-kind bike and kayak, custom designed for quadriplegics. The equipment is the product of a unique collaboration between University of Utah rehabilitation physicians and the school’s mechanical engineering department.

“These pieces are fresh out of the engineering lab,” said Jeffrey Rosenbluth, MD, medical director of University of Utah Health Care’s Spinal Cord Injury Acute Rehabilitation Program. “We’re really concentrating on the hardest people to get into active living and sports. When coming up with these design plans, we asked ‘how can we give these individuals the ultimate experience?’”

Rosenbluth pointed out that there are a lot of devices adapted to meet the needs of these folks but not from the ground up. He coordinated with mechanical engineering professor Andrew Merryweather, PhD, to make his vision a reality. The Craig H. Neilsen foundation financially backed the projects.

“These types of projects as an engineer, are some of the most rewarding I could ever imagine working on or being a part of,” Merryweather said. “It takes a team that includes professionals like doctor Rosenbluth, and the more nuts and bolts guys in the engineering department. That multi-disciplinary collaboration is what makes these types of projects possible.”

Rosenbluth explained some of the features that set the new hand-cycle (which took two years to develop) apart from others on the market.

“Normal handbikes are close to the ground so getting into them from a wheelchair is simple,” he said. “But it’s almost impossible to get back in the wheelchair from that position.”

To compensate, the design features a seat that adjusts up and down, allowing individuals to get in their wheelchairs with relative ease.

Rosenbluth also pointed out revolutionary features like electronic gear shifts located near the elbows, a chest piece braking system that is much more reliable and easy to use, and a power assist hub that measures the torque applied, then adds up to 300 percent.

For the kayak (a modified Hobie trimaran), the team fashioned a sip and puff system to steer, giving virtually anyone the ability to captain the vessel.

“Being able to paddle traditionally is a difficult thing if you don’t have much in terms of hand function or grip,” he said. “We took this device and made it fully accessible and usable by someone with really no hand function whatsoever. If you can move your head and mouth a little bit, you can actually sail and kayak with this device.”

Rosenbluth explained his passion for the project and the therapy his patients get when they’re experiencing the outdoors.

“There are so many amazing places to go and enjoy, and I think it’s our goal in rehab to get people back to their fullest potential,” he said. “Our team really wants to create and adapt equipment so that we can get people out there.”

Patients have already demoed the kayak as part of the Therapeutic Recreation and Independent Lifestyles (TRAILS) program. Earlier this summer, quadriplegic patients at the University of Utah got the chance to sail the vessel on a reservoir near Salt Lake City. Both Rosenbluth and Merryweather were on hand to see how the equipment worked, and hear how it was received.

“First of all most people don’t believe they can do it,” Rosenbluth said of the initial reaction of patients. “They don’t believe we’ve created the device and they don’t believe it will work as advertised. But there’s something therapeutic about being on the water. When people think they’ll never get back on the water again and they do, I think you see their old personality come back. It’s amazing.”

Merryweather echoed his counterpart’s sentiment: “The excitement that was in their voices as they described being on the water for the first time. It was out of this world.”

Gentry Reinhart

Gentry Reinhart is a Communications Specialist at the University of Utah Health Science Public Affairs Office.

spinal cord injury spine rehabilitation

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