Play is a key strategy in children's rehabilitation

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August 16, 2011 - 7:00pm

Our understanding of how the brain works has been changing. Magnetic resonance imaging- MRI's - give scientists new ways to see brain activity, and how our brains interpret the world. At a Nebraska rehabilitation hospital, therapists are figuring out how to use that science to help children recover from brain injury and illness.

Play as Therapy

To watch this scene, you would think it is the most natural thing in the world: a cute little boy playing with a caretaker on a playground. Cole shoots baskets, romps up and down the slides and ramps and platforms, every once in a while, just takes off running.

But even though he might not be aware of it, Cole is doing more than playing. He's doing physical therapy. And his caretaker is a well-trained medical professional.

Michelle Krause is a Pediatric Physical Therapist at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln. She says Cole shooting baskets is part of his recovery from a recent surgery. She says coming up on tip-toes makes his legs stronger and improves his balance.

A safe and fun place to get better

The indoor playground is a playground - but it's also a medical facility. It is hospital clean, used only by the children needing therapy, and located in a glass covered courtyard. In the commons room, another patient, Savanna, squirms in her mother's lap. Heidi Wubbels talks about one of her daughter's favorite places in the children's area.

"She calls it the fishy room. It's a room designed to look like you're in an aquarium - she loves to go in there and play - she thinks her friends Dory and Nemo are in there."

According to the Director of Rehabilitation Programs Karen DeVito, play is the most important thing that a child does.

"I think the biggest challenge is - I may want that child to work on arm strength, how can I integrate that into play, or sitting is a good example, so what can I do that is playful and fun for them, but I can still work on sitting balance"

DeVito says no matter how creative the staff, not all therapy can be turned into play. Sometimes, the stretching and physical manipulation of therapy hurt. Young children don't understand or aren't much interested in grownup talk about short-term pain for long-term gain.

Providing a unique service


A small room with all kinds of sensory stimulation can help with that. It's called a Snoezelen Room, and is based on a twenty-year-old Dutch concept. The distractions help children with the pain of therapy, and the sensory input - visual, auditory, even smell - can help stimulate young brains to build new sensory pathways.
"One of the things we can do is these rope lights here - and this nice cushy bean-bag chair - we'll have a child curled up in the bean-bag chair - and maybe they're looking at the bubble tube - over here that's got all kinds of colors and noises, and they're so distracted by all of that, they really don't know I'm stretching and doing things to them. says rehab director Karen DeVito.

Madonna is not the only place in the state where children's rehab treatment is available - Omaha Children's Hospital is another large provider. But Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln is one of very few in the country concentrating of children.

Marsha Lommel is the President and CEO of Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital

"Madonna is one of only 4 in the whole country that is certified in spinal cord injury and pediatrics, and one of only 8 in the country accredited in pediatrics and brain injury."

And she says the hospital is one of 12 hospitals in the country with a pediatric Lokomat - a device that helps children learn to walk by moving the legs and hips in a natural motion.

The inspiration of Alexis Verzal

The children's ward is named for one of its patients - Alexis Verzal. Her parents, then in Texas, brought their daughter to Madonna for treatment. They are both videographers and made a film of their daughter's treatment. That film found its way to Cara and Dan Whitney - aka Larry the Cable Guy. Their 1.2 million dollar gift was the seed money for the Children's ward.

CEO Marsha Lommel says one of the successes of rehab treatment is that, through experience, parents become part of the therapy team.

"Our parents sound more like therapists as they get through the program. We have parents who could be therapists. They certainly know all the lingo - they understand the therapy treatments, and all of that is really important, because they're going to have to understand any lingering problem the child has."

Heidi Wubbles - whose daughter Savanna likes "the fishy room" - says the therapists at Madonna have made a big difference.

"When we got here 10 weeks ago, she couldn't even hold her head up. And now she's walking independently - so it's been a great road."

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