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 was born with cerebral palsy, and he 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 the movement of the infrared light emitted by the small devices. The images were painted on a computer screen and gave the specialists a 3-D view of Sam’s movement.
It’s the same technology video game makers use to capture Tiger Woods’ picture-perfect golf swing or NBA stars’ razzle-dazzle moves.
The technology is among the 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 the loss of limbs in accidents – have come to the motion lab.
The lab team is able to assess muscle and joint activity in children. An oxygen mask helps them measure how much energy children use to walk, jump or run.
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; 13 have motion labs. While motion analysis tests have been used since the 1970s, they were 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 3-D image data has made for tremendous advances.”
Sam Barker 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.
When Sam started missing some of the key markers of development parents watch for in the first year, such as crawling and standing, she had a feeling that something wasn’t right. But doctors assured her he was fine.
Then a pediatric ophthalmologist saw Sam. He was the first to suggest the boy might have cerebral palsy and should seek some special care.
New physicians began helping the family with in-home therapies. And then something special happened. A Shriner neighbor, George Evjen, of Coeur d’Alene, urged the family to visit the specialty hospital in Spokane.
That visit changed everything, said Sam’s father, Samuel Barker.
Dr. William Osbold, an orthopedic surgeon in Spokane, began treating Sam. The boy underwent surgeries that eased his pain and helped him walk. A major surgery last May dramatically improved his posture.
DeeAnn Barker said that now that Sam is older, most medical decisions, including the latest surgery, are his to make.
She is overwhelmed by the hospital’s level of care. “They took care of everything for our son,” she said of the Shriners Hospital. “Costs and all.”
Of Osbold, she said, “I can’t say enough wonderful and beautiful things about this man.”
Sam put it this way: “He’s freakin’ awesome.”
Sam is one of about 200 children who 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 who 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 those steps place on their feet.
McMulkin hopes the money will also buy a less cumbersome oxygen apparatus that provides more accurate readings of children’s oxygen use.
“It’s a lot more than their peers to just do normal things,” McMulkin said.
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.
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