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Suburban Hospital Uses 3D VR Headset Technology to Help Stroke Patients Recover

A stroke is the leading cause of disability in the United States, and Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital is helping stroke patients get their mobility back with a new high-tech tool

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About a month after his 2nd stroke, David Gerfen’s wife, Gerri, says she’s already seeing improvement in his right side weakness after a half-dozen therapy sessions with a virtual reality headset.

“He has more strength and he’s able to move the right hand better,” Gerri Gerfen said.

At Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, the staff is trying out a new kind of occupational therapy.

“We wanted to see will that really improve our outcomes,” said Dr. Mahesh Ramachandran, a stroke rehabilitation specialist and the chief medical officer.

Ramachandran knows how important occupational therapy is, as a stroke survivor himself.

“I would tell my patients to be motivated, you’ve got to do the therapies to get the most recovery so when I had to do it myself I understood the importance, but by the end of the day, I was dead tired,” Ramachandran said. “When you do it every day, it becomes kind of monotonous as well, so it’s really hard to do especially when you get so fatigued.”

That’s where the REAL system headset comes in, with a variety of games requiring the patient to perform functional tasks.

“One is preparing a sandwich, carrying a tray, another is a ball coming back at you and you have to hit the ball,” said Dr. Dhruvil Pandya, a neurologist who is conducting the study with Ramachandran.

They’ve used the VR headset with 12 stroke patients so far and the doctors tell us they’ve seen promising results.

“Patients are really enjoying participating in therapy sessions, not just the patients, but the occupation therapists who are performing the sessions are also enjoying it,” Dr. Pandya said.

“It’s kind of fun, kind of unique. It kind of motivates you,” Ramachandran added, with both doctors saying that motivation is often the key to recovery.  

“In my professional opinion the biggest factor is your mindset and how much you want to recover,” Pandya said.

David Gerfen, 80, also went through traditional rehabilitation after suffering a first stroke a year ago and says he likes the virtual reality sessions.

“This one keeps your attention more,” Gerfen said.

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