“Risking my life to help others?”

By Kathleen Herring

“One boy [during the driving test] told me he had driven a lawnmower before and I assured him it was essentially the same concept… he did not know what a stop sign was.  I can guarantee I’ve spent more time riding with one tire on the road and one tire off the road than anything else… and we’ve almost hit people on multiple occasions.”  If this sounds like a horror story from a DMV employee, think again!

Katie Chittum, senior Health and Exercise Science major, recounts stories of her internship at Woodrow Wilson Rehab Center, where she frequently rides along with patients who are practicing to get a driver’s license.

Patients at Woodrow Wilson have suffered strokes or other debilitating injuries such as multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis, and are re-learning the activities of daily living.  Katie often helps patients with activities such as tooth-brushing, getting dressed, combing hair, and, most importantly for some, driving a car.  The rehab center has six vehicles which have been modified in different ways.  Katie confided, “One of the coolest patients was a guy who got in a car accident and he was paraplegic, which means he didn’t have sensation in two out of the four of his extremities.  I got to watch his development from getting behind the wheel of a car again to getting ready to go take his test at the DMV.”

This particular patient has a van with no driver’s seat. Instead, his wheelchair moves up into the car and is strapped in to the vehicle, and he uses a variety of hand controls to move the vehicle. One button over his head can be held down for differing lengths of time to control the turn signals and windshield wipers. It plays a different musical tone for each function to let the driver know he is using it correctly. There is also a lever that when moved up or down controls the gas, while pushing forward or pulling back controls the brake. Modifications such as these allow a paraplegic to control all the essential functions of a car with his more mobile appendages.

Chittum’s favorite patient so far is “a gentleman who suffered a stroke which caused damage to his Broca’s Area (a part of the brain which affects his speech and language).” This particular patient really struggles with pronouns. While able to speak coherently and understand what he wants to say, the damage from his stroke prevents him from being able to visually identify or explain the meanings of individual words on a page. In order to help him learn to read again, Chittum has helped in the use of the “Dragon Naturally Speaking” computer program, which uses speech-recognition technology to record what the patient is saying as well as type it on the screen. Different segments of the sentence can be read or played back, which helps the patient to recognize which words have which meaning.

Chittum hopes to pursue a career in Occupational Therapy, and she believes this internship will provide her with invaluable experience as she prepares for graduate school. The experience working with these patients offers a good insight into her future career as well because the wide variety of patients “keeps me on my toes.”

“My favorite part?  Just being able to know that what I am helping them do will overall make their quality of life better.  It’s a very gratifying field because you see immediate improvements.  The efforts you put in, you get back immediately,” Chittum said. And when it comes to driving with patients, in her own words, “I was the youngest; I was the last person in my family to learn to drive, and now I’m getting paid back for it!”


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