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thedrifter
08-10-07, 09:15 AM
Device helps brain-injured rebuild motor skills
By Natalie Storey - The Associated Press
Posted : Friday Aug 10, 2007 8:42:33 EDT

SANTA FE, N.M. — Retired Army Col. Ramon Sanchez has developed a strut.

The 63-year-old from Santa Fe demonstrated his new, more confident gait recently in an office in Albuquerque, where he is getting treatment for a brain injury he suffered following a stroke in 2003. The former mariachi trumpet player walked while holding his hands out to the side. With a smile, he said, “It never used to be like this.”

Only a few months ago, walking was difficult for Sanchez. He had a limp and sometimes lost his balance. He experienced a burning sensation on half of his body that was so painful he sometimes didn’t feel like getting out of bed.

Memory loss, fatigue and depression plagued him.

Sanchez went to see several different neurologists, was prescribed a “bazillion” medications and did hundreds of hours of physical therapy. Doctors said his prognosis was bleak.

A few months ago, Sanchez began using a device developed by Diego Guillen, a former computer installer from Alcalde.

“Now I am doing everything I was told I wasn’t going to be able to do,” he said.

The Automated Pegboard 2000, a machine that resembles a child’s geometric puzzle, helps brain-injury patients rebuild motor functions. Sanchez’s son-in-law convinced the skeptical colonel to try it after a chance meeting with the inventor several months ago.

About 5.3 million Americans are disabled because of a brain injury, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thousands of soldiers and Marines returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking treatment for traumatic brain injury ranging from mild to severe. The Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center says as many as 20 percent of military personnel have brain injuries.

Speedy and more sophisticated medical care for service members injured by improvised explosive devices and other blasts has improved survival rates from head injuries, but pressure is growing on veterans health care facilities to care for them.

Treating traumatic brain injury is a growing concern for veterans health care organizations.

There is little scientific validation of the APB 2000. But in an article published in the Journal of Applied Research in 2003, researchers at Loma Linda University in California who tested the pegboard concluded it “appears to be a highly reliable tool.”

Brain-injury experts in the state said they don’t feel comfortable talking about the APB 2000 because they have never seen it in action. But Sanchez said, “I think this has the potential to help a lot of our returning veterans.”

Guillen’s pegboard works by giving the patient a set of instructions to move shapes across a puzzle board and fit them into specified spots. A computer monitors the time it takes for the patient to process the instructions and then execute them.

“At first I watched the DVD and said, ‘That’s just a pegboard! My grandkids could do it.’ Then I watched it again and said, ‘What the heck. I guess it’s worth a try,”’ Sanchez said.

The machine converted him to a believer after one session. Since using it, he said, the burning sensation on his face has lessened, although he is still unable to work.

Guillen said the pegboard works because it forces patients to use their mind and body simultaneously, which is how all people learn motor functions as children. It gives patients objective mathematical information so they can see their time improvements, he said.

“The mind is capable of doing miracles, but it has to have objective information, not someone’s opinion that you are getting better,” he said. “We show them mathematical proof that they are getting better.”

Traumatic brain injury is caused by an external blow to the head that is severe enough to move the brain around inside the skull. Sufferers can experience a loss of memory and motor function, pain such as headaches or a stinging sensation, numbness and unpredictable mood swings, among other symptoms.

These tend to be unique to each person, said Elisabeth Peterson, the director of New Mexico’s Brain Injury Advisory Council.

“Because you can’t see it, it’s hard for people to grasp what it is,” Peterson said. “With a broken leg, you see someone walking down the street with crutches. People say, ‘Oh!’ and they open a door for the person. With a brain injury, you can’t see it.”

Guillen is not a neurologist, although he has personal experience with brain injury because his mother, Esperanza Guillen, had a brain tumor. He said he was motivated to create something new to treat brain injury after watching her struggle with several different forms of treatment, none of which seemed to help.

Several years ago, he went back to school at ITT Technical Institute, where he earned associate’s degrees in engineering and business and now works promoting the APB 2000.

So far, Guillen has treated only a handful of patients.

He also has had success with Bruce Bayless, a Vietnam veteran in Albuquerque. Bayless suffered a severe brain injury in a car accident more than 20 years ago. He tried several different treatments and hundreds of drug combinations. Still, he couldn’t walk long distances, he slept badly and he couldn’t concentrate.

After eight sessions on the pegboard, Bayless said he began to sleep better and even started remembering his dreams. He now makes lists of the tasks he wants to complete each day.

On a list he carried with him earlier this month, Bayless had written, “Walmart, keys, milk, light bulbs, shower rod.” Each item was checked off.

“That’s something I would have done in a month,” he said. “I am really thankful to be getting this. I wish I would have gotten it right after my accident because it is changing my life.”

Ellie