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Defying Gravity

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image Bre Medlock, supervising therapist at Sun Terrace, demonstrates the AlterG with the assistance of Joe Kennedy of Advanced Prosthetics and Orthotics of America. Mitch Traphagen Photo

"We would like to get the word out that we have this machine and it can help you.”


There is a place in Sun City Center where it is possible to experience what it would be like to walk on the Moon. While that would almost certainly entice anyone old enough to have memories of their eyes fixed on a black and white television set beaming Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind into living rooms around the world, the purpose of the device is, arguably, even more noble. At the Sun Terrace Rehabilitation Center in Sun City Center, an AlterG anti-gravity treadmill makes exercise and, hopefully, a better life possible for stroke victims, amputees, people recovering from hip or knee surgery, arthritis sufferers and even the overweight hoping to overcome.

Bre Medlock, supervising therapist, demonstrated the AlterG anti-gravity treadmill to the staff at Sun Terrace. With her to act as the test patient was Joe Kennedy, a physician relations executive with Advanced Prosthetics and Orthotics of America. Kennedy, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, is an amputee who lost his right leg below the knee in an automobile accident.

Kennedy stepped into the machine and Medlock raised the airlock up to just over his waste-level. He was then zipped into the machine that took his weight off his legs.
“We’re going down to 20 percent,” Medlock said as the airlock rapidly filled. “That means 20 percent of his weight will actually be on his feet, with 80 percent of his weight offloaded.”

Within a few moments, Kennedy was lighter on his feet than if he had been standing on the Moon. Had he been a recent amputee, the machine would have provided a safe and much less painful way to learn how to use a new prosthesis or to regain balance —  incalculably important to someone who has lost a limb, had recent surgery or suffers from extreme arthritis.

Medlock pointed out a laundry list of things for the staff to keep an eye on, but by design, the device creates a buffer of safety for the patient. Even if they trip up, they can’t fall down because their weight is supported. Kennedy graphically illustrated that feature by letting go of the handrails and lifting both legs off the treadmill. He was, for all intents, floating in space with the AlterG supporting him entirely.

The Neil Armstrong reference was not a facetious illustration. The technology and many of the materials used in the AlterG were developed by NASA and provided to the private sector for the benefit of all. It has the capability of offloading so much weight that people just getting used to a new prosthesis can go through the motions of walking and regain their balance without having to put weight down on their legs, something that could otherwise be a painful and even debilitating hurdle towards recovery.

“He is still using every muscle he has even though the weight is offloaded,” Medlock continued. “The goal is to get people to walk out of this facility without the use of a walker or a wheelchair. This machine can make that happen.”

Medlock went on to discuss one patient prior to the AlterG in which it took three months of work to get her to be able to stand up.

“That was three months we could have spent working on other things,” she said.

Those three months of work would not have been necessary with the antigravity treadmill.

“It may take five or six of us to get some patients in here, but the benefits to the patient are worth it,” she continued.

The machine and the technology it contains are not inexpensive, but this is a human-centered operation. During the demonstration, there was no discussion of the cost; there was only discussion of the rewards for the people who might use it. Real people will see real benefits thanks to AlterG, and that includes everyone from the arthritic to the elderly who may have lost a limb to diabetes to America’s best and bravest who may have lost a limb to war.

“We have targeted our orthopedic area with this so far,” Medlock said. “We are hoping to get the word out to other populations as well, such as the geriatric population, the amputee population that we have this machine and it can help you.”

The system at Sun Terrace, known as the M300 Anti-gravity Treadmill, allows weight to be taken off at precise one percent intervals and is built to allow easy access for patients with difficulties in mobility, which was illustrated again by Kennedy after he removed his prosthesis for demonstration purposes. Once inside the machine, his weight was supported and exercise was again possible for him. For many people, from amputees to those hoping to fight diseases associated with aging or even athletes recovering from an injury, the device has the potential to make a difference in taking the first literal steps towards recovery.

“For people with arthritis, it will provide all of the benefits of exercise while offloading the weight on their joints,” Medlock continued. “Without this, it could be too painful to exercise. For someone who is overweight, they may be able to walk for only five minutes. With their weight offloaded on this, they may be able to walk for 30 minutes.”

That extra time spent exercising will add up quickly, as will the health benefits.

Two cameras aimed at the patient’s feet and legs, with a flat screen display at the front of the treadmill, allow the therapist to keep an eye on the posture and gait and allow the patients to gain a sense of comfort in being able to see their legs in motion.

Staff members brought forth questions and concerns based on their experience with specific patients and Medlock reminded them that was what the demonstration was for — to learn how to accommodate special situations and work with them. The number one concern throughout was to help the patients regain their independence of motion as quickly, effectively, and painlessly as possible.

For Kennedy, use of the AlterG is not only part of his professional life in working with amputees, but it is also personal.

“I make myself available to patients and their families 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “I believe this [the AlterG] is extremely beneficial to new amputees.”

More than 40 years ago, Neil Armstrong took one giant step for mankind, a step that could not possibly be taken for granted. Thanks to technology derived from NASA and the dedication of a residential health care facility in Sun City Center, replicating the environment of that enormous step is now possible. They may well be the first steps towards better lives for family, friends and heroes alike.

For more information about Sun Terrace, visit www.cchcfacilities.com/SunTerrace-Home-Temp.html. For more information about AlterG, visit www.alterg.com. For more about Joe Kennedy and Advanced Prosthetics and Orthotics of America, visit www.advancedpando.com.

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