Spinal Cord SuperCenter

As you walk into the new Spinal Cord Injury and Disease Center at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, you'll not really notice you're walking into a new building. That's the whole idea, says Dr. Gary Goldish, chief of the center.

"I purposely wanted this to feel like we're not going off into a different world - that it's not a different building, that it's the same facility," Goldish says. "Based on my experience when I was at the University of Minnesota, children's rehab was off in a different section. It would take someone 15 minutes to figure out where they were. I want them to feel like they're just walking into another ward."

The center, despite the look, is anything but just another ward.

Among its features are 30 inpatient beds, a state-of-the-art therapy pool and gym, a computer-training room, a urodynamics and special procedures room, and a multipurpose room that includes dining, gym and projection-screen areas. A ceiling-lift system at the center will safely move patients from area to area.

The physical-therapy department includes the Lokomat, a robotic treadmill on which patients are strapped into a support harness and their legs are moved mechanically to simulate walking. The Lokomat's biofeedback system allows patients to know, with each step, how much they are helping or resisting the machine.

"State of the art used to be having a patient in a harness on the treadmill, with one physical therapist holding one leg, another therapist holding the other leg, and a third therapist to turn the treadmill on," Goldish says. "Now, one therapist can take care of the patient. The robot is doing most of the work at first, but you can back off, little by little, and can actually increase the resistance (the patient) has to fight through."

The therapy pool, a HydroWorx 2000, also is cutting edge. It features an adjustable floor with variable water depth, allowing for safe access without ladders or steps. Patients simply walk - or are wheeled - onto the pool floor, then lowered to any depth. The pool also features a variable speed treadmill that will accommodate four to six people at a time, and resistance jets.

Simple day-to-day tasks become extremely difficult following a spinal injury, so the center has an area designed to help re-entry into society.

"You've got people learning to grocery shop from a wheelchair," Goldish says. "You've got a bank. You've got community re-entry as an integral part of rehab. When the person who is just learning to get into the wheelchair for the first time, when he comes to therapy and is struggling just to get into his wheelchair, and he sees the other guy who has been here a month is already practicing getting into a car - that's huge. It says, ‘There's light at the end of this tunnel.'"

Outside the center is a wooded setting where a wheelchair exercise trail is planned, along with a sports court that includes wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis and six "bank-shot" stations where players proceed through a course of angled, curved and brightly colored backboards. The American Legion Department of Minnesota already has provided $36,000 to help with the cost of the Sport Court.

"It seems like it's impossible, but (the patients) really love it," Goldish says of the outdoor sports available. "It's a challenge."

On a training patio, patients learn to walk again on asphalt, gravel, sand, wood, mulch, cement, a bridge, slopes and handrails. The outdoor area even includes a putting green and batting cage for wheelchair patients.

The center will treat a variety of patients. "We'll be providing care for spinal-cord injuries and spinal-cord disorders," Goldish said. "What I mean by disorders would be patients who have paralysis from non-traumatic causes, such as multiple sclerosis. It's a rehab facility, so we'll be providing both acute rehab and sustaining care, home care, even telehealth." The facility also will provide a break for home caregivers.

"Patients who come in with, for instance, a bed sore, and they need to be at bed rest," Goldish says. "They can't take care of themselves at home for awhile. They come in and they need a respite, or their caregivers need a break. They can come in for up to one month a year."

The center's opening will be a dream realized for Goldish.

"This is my baby," he says. "I am very committed to this and excited about it. I think we've got some really neat features."