Updated rehab aims to give Giffords her life back

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Now, three to six months is a very long stay, partly due to better treatments and new technology that allow more care to be given at home _ portable lifts to help people out of wheelchairs, for example.

How does someone get better in rehab?

“Practice, practice, practice, and I’m not being facetious,” said Dr. Paul Schulz, a UTHealth neurologist who works at the hospital.

A patient having trouble speaking _ as doctors suspect Giffords might _ could be given a Ouija board and asked to form words on it. Or encouraged to sing what they are trying to say to a familiar tune like the ABC’s or Happy Birthday while tapping their fingers, said Dr. David Lacey, medical director of rehab services at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

That engages more body systems and encourages new connections and nerve growth, he explained.

“Sometimes you can break through the speech deficit by using the auditory pathway. They can get the word out rather than just thinking of the word and saying it,” said Lacey, who is not involved in Giffords‘ care.

At the Houston hospital, therapists sometimes test cognitive function by showing patients the word “red” written in blue, and ask them to read the word. Impaired people often say “blue,” distracted by the color, and that can signal the need for training like flash card drills, Schulz said.

“You have to do it with a lot of empathy because you don’t want to frustrate the person,” he said. “A lot of times you say ‘very good’ even if it’s not the right answer because you want to keep them motivated on the task.”

Computer games like Nintendo’s Wii can be used to enhance coordination, and as rehab progresses, patients can join basketball and hockey teams or do gardening and other hobbies. They go on field trips to the grocery store or the airport to practice going through security screening and boarding a plane.

Doctors hope Giffords will do all these things, but Lacey cautions:

“Very positive early recovery does not guarantee an excellent long-term outcome. It certainly puts her more in that category of people who are likely to do much better, but some patients can plateau and not progress much further.”

Mark Steinhubl wishes he could give Giffords advice. The 20-year-old was shot in the head two years ago in downtown Houston and had rehab at Memorial Hermann. He still can’t see out of one eye or hear out of one ear, but he can walk and talk and is a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering at Texas A&M.

“She needs to realize that it won’t be instantaneous like I thought it would be,” he said. “I felt like I was accomplishing something every day, meeting a benchmark.”

When he came into the rehab hospital on a stretcher, “I couldn’t even sit up,” Steinhubl said. When he left a month later, “I didn’t walk out, I ran out.”

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