As Sam Barker walks in a brisk figure-eight pattern, his parents can only shake their heads and marvel.
The 14-year-old from Kellogg, Idaho, was born with cerebral palsy, and has struggled to do what most people do so naturally – walk.
On a recent morning physical therapists and biomechanical engineers taped reflective markers – about the size of marbles – on his body, then used eight special cameras to record only the movement of the infrared light emitted by the small devices. The images are painted on a computer screen and give the specialists a 3-D view of how Sam walks.
It’s the same technology videogame makers use to capture that picture-perfect golf swing of Tiger Woods, or the razzle-dazzle moves of NBA stars.
The technology is just one of the special services offered by the Shriners Hospital for Children in Spokane. For more than a decade children from around the Northwest with cerebral palsy, club feet and other treatable orthopedic problems – including children who have lost limbs due to accidents – have come to the motion lab.
The lab team is able to assess muscle and joint activity in children. A special oxygen mask is used to help them measure how much energy children use to walk, jump or run.
The information is compared to children with a normal gait. Medical staff can then evaluate treatment options that could help, such as surgery, medications, therapy or braces.
“What we’re here for is to help out the kids,” said Mark McMulkin, a biomechanical engineer and director of the lab. “Maybe people didn’t know Shriners is so high-tech. But we have state-of-the-art equipment right here and neat things are happening.”
There are 22 Shriners hospitals in the country; thirteen have motion labs. While motion analysis tests have been used since the 1970s, it was computerized in the 1990s.
“With computer imagery, we see things that you just cannot notice with the visual eye,” McMulkin said. “The ability to collect and use 3D image data has made for tremendous advances.”
Sam has been coming to Shriners for more than a decade.
He has used the motion lab often as he grows and the specialists continue to help him improve his walking and other activities.
He was born premature – at 28 weeks – but no one detected his condition, said his mother, DeeAnn Barker, who had two sons.
When Sam started missing some of those key markers that all parents watch for in that first year, like crawling and standing, she had a feeling that something wasn’t right. But doctors kept assuring her he was fine. It wasn’t until a pediatric ophthalmologist saw Sam that he first suggested he might have cerebral palsy and should seek some special care.
New physicians began helping them with in-home therapies. And then something special happened. A kindly neighbor, George Evjen of Coeur d’Alene, took a special interest in Sam. He was a Shriner and urged them to visit the specialty hospital in Spokane.
It changed everything, said Sam’s father, Samuel Barker.
They began to receive treatment for their son by Dr. William Osbold, an orthopedic surgeon in Spokane.
Sam underwent surgeries that eased his pain and helped him walk. Last May he underwent a major surgery that has dramatically improved his posture, helped him walk more normally.
DeeAnn said now that Sam is older, most medical conditions, including the latest surgery, are his to decide.
She is overwhelmed by the care provided her son.
“They took care of everything for our son,” she said of the Shriners hospital. “Costs and all.”
Of Dr. Osbold, she said: “I can’t say enough wonderful and beautiful things about this man.”
Sam the teen puts it this way: “He’s freakin’ awesome.”
Sam is one of about 200 children that use the lab each year. It has become such an important assessment tool that it is poised for a $350,000 upgrade.
The money came from the estate of Walter and Agnes Griffin, a Seattle-area couple that owned several strip malls.
They left $8 million, about 20 percent of their fortune, to the Shriners hospital. They bequeathed the remaining $32 million to the University of Washington.
The couple had no children, said Shriners spokeswoman Sally Mildren.
“Their gift was incredibly generous and will be put to good use,” she said.
McMulkin said the lab has been renamed to honor the Griffins.
The money will pay for four more cameras and smaller, less intrusive markers. That should capture even more information to help in gait analysis.
Other improvements, he said, will be equipment that measures how children step and the rigors it places on the foot. Because they are not moving in a natural motion due to cerebral palsy or other conditions, their bodies overcompensate.
McMulkin also hopes the money will buy a new oxygen apparatus that’s less cumbersome and provides a more accurate reading of how much oxygen the children use.
“It’s a lot more than their peers to just do normal things,” McMulkin.
The money will also buy specially made pedometers. Because children with walking difficulties have so much extra movement, traditional pedometers don’t work. These new pedometers can be configured to accurately measure the number of steps children take and the distance they walk.
“All of this new equipment will help us stay in front of the trends for treating children. Making their lives better,” McMulkin said.