TAMPA (FOX 13) - Shriner's Hospital in Tampa is helping 8-year-old Charley Matthews walk on Mars -- virtually.
Charley has cerebral palsy. Damage to his brain causes his muscle to tighten and flex, affecting the way he walks. But a new device, coupled with a simulator, can be used to help patients with spinal cord injury, stroke, and other orthopedic conditions to help regain motor function.
Dr. Richard Radecki says that the $500,000 Lokomat works not only by retraining muscle memory, but also by retraining the mind. As part of the game, Charley's avatar is presented with challenges like leaps and turns, which the robotic system then helps him emulate. As he navigates through obstacles, he gains points that encourage him to improve.
Megan Richards, Charley's physical therapist says the machine can be intimating for some children. It took five weeks before Charley was comfortable enough to get strapped into the device.
"He was very nervous about each individual part and what it was going to be, he was just fearful of it,” Richards recalled. “And now he just gets in and he rocks it!"
Dr. Radecki says the device – the only one of its kind in Florida – also benefits kids with spinal cord injury, stroke, and orthopedic conditions.
"It has helped a lot of our patients become very independent or more independent," he continued.
Radecki says Lokomat works not just by retraining muscle memory, but also by retraining the mind. Using functional MRI images, studies show new areas in the brain light up after treatment.
"Some areas around the area of injury will have better blood flow to it, which equates to more function," Radecki explained.
For Charley, his initial injury occurred at birth. He and his twin, Price, were born at 26 weeks and weighed less than 2 pounds. Because of complications, Price died when he was a week old. Charley's condition continued to worsen. A bleed in his brain was getting worse.
"They called at Price's funeral, we came to the hospital right after that and their suggestion was to take him off life support," recalled Charley’s mother, Robyn.
Charley kept fighting. His dad, Kyle, says Shriner's has helped in their fight. He says they've allowed more physical therapy sessions than their insurance allowed, with almost no out-of-pocket expense.
It’s a benefit that is helping Charley defy the odds.
"He is magic! He is incredible," Kyle beamed.
"To see how much quality of life he has and how much quality of life he brings everybody he contacts, is just a miracle. I can't help but think constantly that it is amazing he is alive," Robyn added.