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New driving simulator helps St. Luke’s rehab patients get back on the road

Patient Ryan Wilson, left, of Athena, Ore., operates a driving simulator while being monitored by occupational therapist Emily Lunden to test his driving skills and reaction times at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. The rehabilitation center recently added a driving simulator to help patients recover the driving skills or to prove they can perform behind the wheel if they retain their license. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Patient Ryan Wilson, left, of Athena, Ore., operates a driving simulator while being monitored by occupational therapist Emily Lunden to test his driving skills and reaction times at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. The rehabilitation center recently added a driving simulator to help patients recover the driving skills or to prove they can perform behind the wheel if they retain their license. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Ryan Wilson appeared sure-handed and careful behind the “driver’s wheel” on Wednesday.

But the road before him wasn’t a real road. He was seated in a new virtual reality driving simulator at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute, the first of its kind in the area.

The simulator is helping him regain his driving skills following complications from a spinal injury.

Therapists and managers at St. Luke’s said the machine will help patients regain those basic desires for mobility and independence.

Wilson, of Athena, Oregon, has been receiving care at St. Luke’s for seven weeks now and is expecting to return home on Friday. He wants to leave with a green light to drive.

Not being able to drive is “a huge barrier to me,” the 34-year-old said.

He works on his family’s farm in the shadow of the Blue Mountains of northeast Oregon where driving is a basic job skill.

The interactive simulator gives patients a realistic experience as they retrain following injury or illness.

Grants for the $80,000 machine came from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, Empire Health Foundation and Providence Health Care Foundation.

The simulator has a driver’s wheel and other hand controls along with foot pedals. The road is made up of three video screens to show the way.

Depending on the patient’s level of recovery, the screen could light up with any of some 80 road scenarios.

As the driver goes down the road, all kinds of things come up such as a pedestrian crossing the street, a traffic light changing or a vehicle moving slowly.

The scenarios test and train for vehicle control, reaction time, attention to the road, memory, planning and navigation and hazard perception.

Patients can practice without the pressure – and potential hazards – of confronting real traffic.

“No one is at risk,” said Douglas Weeks, director of clinical research at St. Luke’s.

The simulator can also be used for research to get a better understanding of how different injuries or illnesses can affect individual driving. That could lead to improved therapy, he said.

Wilson said the most difficult simulator scenario for him was merging into heavy freeway traffic with only small gaps between vehicles.

“It’s very realistic,” he said.

In an easier “drive” on Wednesday, Wilson found himself cruising down a foggy farm road.

“This looks like home here,” he said.

Wilson suffered a neck injury when the vehicle he was riding in went off the road and struck a tree in 2014.

It appeared at first that he was OK, but problems surfaced later. He underwent spinal fusion surgery.

He woke up from surgery a quadriplegic related to damage to the spinal cord from the accident, he said.

He spent two weeks in intensive care before moving to the rehab institute.

Mobility and strength are returning. He still is somewhat weak on the left side, but he is told he should reach 95 percent recovery if he continues his therapy work at home.

“As unfortunate as it’s been, I can’t complain,” he said.

Father to a 3-year-old son, Wilson said he is looking forward to being able to play with him again. His wife was at his side during much of the recovery.

He is just waiting to ease back into his farm job.

“I’d go crazy if I wasn’t able to work,” he said.

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