Physical Therapist Allison Underwood celebrates a win while playing a Wii game with patient Lloyd Millimake at Rogue Valley Medical Center Monday. Millimake is recovering from a spinal cord injury. Jim Craven 3/24/2008 - Jim Craven

Wii helps patient recover

The patient and the physical therapist are locked in deadly combat, shooting down aliens, leaping cows over hurdles and smack-talking each other.

"I totally outscored you," crows Lloyd Millimake, swinging his arm in a wide arc while his grin grows even wider.

One month ago, Millimake was virtually helpless. A motorcycle crash left him temporarily paralyzed from severe spinal cord injuries.

"I hit a guardrail and flipped over. I fractured four vertebrae in my spine," says the 40-year-old patient, after his daily bout of computerized physical therapy at Rogue Valley Medical Center's new $5.9 million Inpatient Rehabilitation Center.

"The only thing I could do when I got here was talk," Millimake says.

Today the Gold Hill husband and father of two has battled back to relative self-sufficiency and is ready for his release on Wednesday, says Allison Underwood, Millimake's physical therapist and interactive Wii games opponent.

The games have helped Millimake's mind and body coordinate the myriad complicated signals necessary to create the precise movements the sporting games — and life — require, she says.

The spinal cord is like a highway. And the signals from the brain that prompts movement are like cars, Underwood says.

Millimake's spinal injury severely compressed, but luckily did not sever, his "highway." While his "cars" can still make it from his brain to their destination, it may take longer, require delays or take even small detours, she says.

"The body's healing itself," Underwood says. "It has to relearn how to get there. And as Lloyd does more and more things, he gets better and better."

Enter Wii and its series of interactive computer games. Originally designed to get couch potatoes off their collective duff, the games have proven useful in therapeutic settings, health professionals have determined.

"What's nice about Wii is that it mimics human movement," says Underwood.

Millimake stands braced in a supportive metal framework for his half-hour of Wii play. The standing frame provides Millimake stability from the front, back and side, as does his cervical thoracic brace. But Millimake's feet bear his full weight. And his fingers must press the buttons and his wrist must twist and turn and his arm must swing in a correct arc in order to beat Underwood at shooting aliens, leaping cows or bowling a strike.

"It makes exercise fun," says Millimake.

RVMC's rehab center opened in August 2007. It can serve a maximum of 14 patients at a time and is staffed by about 40 full-time-equivalent employees, including a physiatrist (a doctor who specializes in rehabilitation medicine), three physical therapists, three occupational therapists, a speech pathologist, a rehabilitation technician, a social worker, case managers and about 20 registered nurses and certified nursing assistants, says Deborah Crea, IRC program manager.

"These people really care," says Millimake.

Millimake will continue with outpatient therapy. He has been told it may take up to six months for the swelling in his spine to fully diminish. Currently he is stronger, and has made more progress, on his right side than his left.

He spent an hour prior to Monday's Wii workout with his occupational therapist just getting his left hand's fingers to move, he says.

"First this one wiggled, then this one," he says, focusing on his stubborn digits.

"I used to have to have a strap-on fork. I've had to learn to do everything again. It's been like starting over."

This was not Millimake's first stint in a hospital for a serious injury.

"I've been in all kinds of car accidents and motorcycle accidents," he says.

As a teenager, he was in a coma after going 115 mph and hitting a telephone pole.

"I totally healed out of that one as well," he says.

With all this healing under his belt, Millimake plans to make a career change once he's fully recovered. After 15 years as a satellite installer, Millimake is considering working with kids, he says.

"I've been lucky. But I think there's more to it than just luck. It's a miracle that I lived through this. I want to do something more for the community and more rewarding for myself," Millimake says.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail

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