A toddler without the muscle control to hold her feet on a tricycle’s pedals can now join the other kids zipping around the playground.
- A teenager who cannot move his arms, legs, or trunk is able to play his favorite Bon Jovi album using only a slight movement of his head.
- A boy who couldn’t move on his own drives a wheelchair through his house, delighting his family—and himself.
These life-changing achievements were made possible by the rehabilitation engineering profession, which creates and adapts the equipment that makes much of life possible for people with serious disabilities.
The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh has one of the region’s most robust and creative rehab engineering departments. It is headed by Rehabilitation Engineer Beth Ann Brednich, who works closely with the organization’s expert physical, occupational, and speech therapists to understand each patient’s situation and needs. One child might need to be able to sit upright despite weakness in her trunk muscles. Another might have only limited fine motor control, but might need to control a power wheelchair. A third might need to be able to communicate his needs and desires, despite being able to move only his head.
Brednich, with an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering and a master’s in rehabilitation science and technology, knows what’s available in the rapidly changing world of assistive technology. Working with staff therapists and Ray Mehal, The Children’s Institute’s adaptive equipment technician, she can make almost infinite adaptations to equipment, essentially making each piece one of a kind, tailored precisely to the child’s needs.
Lorelli Moser, OTR/L, Director of Occupational Therapy at The Children’s Institute’s Hospital, said, “We are fortunate to have in Beth Ann someone who not only is well grounded in the technology, but who also fully understands the physical and emotional needs of kids with disabilities.”
Many children benefit
The Children’s Institute’s rehab engineering services benefit inpatients and outpatients at the Hospital, students at The Day School, and kids in the community who need assistive technology support.
There are weekly assistive technology evaluations in which Brednich and the therapists evaluate needs and suggest ways to adapt equipment to meet them. Equipment vendors work closely with the staff, and lend a great variety of equipment so patients and their families can see exactly which solutions will work for a child before a purchase is made. There’s even a miniature “carwash” to sanitize gear used by more than one patient.
Computers increase control
Much of the work involves mobility—helping patients and students with standing, walking, and getting around. There’s also a great deal of work with computers and communications technology. Augmentative communication devices open new worlds for kids who are unable to verbalize their needs, and computers can be programmed to allow even severely challenged children to exert some control over their surroundings. Brednich said, “Things are happening so fast in computers—for instance, there were no iPads a few years ago, but now they’re everywhere and there are many ways they can be programmed to make life easier for the children. And having the device helps them fit in with their peers who are so familiar with mobile technology.”
Brednich and her colleagues also provide a home evaluation service to the families of kids with special needs. They’ll visit the home and make recommendations about everything from access ramps and accessible bathrooms to computer-controlled doors, and even suggest possible funding sources to pay for the modifications.
Rehabilitation engineering is a profession that makes an enormous difference. Consider Noah Sheriff, who was paralyzed after a high school wrestling accident, with no assurance that he could be mobile again. After months as an inpatient at The Children’s Institute, aided by the full range of assistive technologies, he can now walk independently and is compiling an excellent record as a full-time student at Penn State McKeesport.
What career path has he chosen? As a direct result of what he saw and experienced at The Children’s Institute, Noah is studying rehabilitation engineering—a remarkable example of “paying it forward.”.