A dream realized, a partnership formed

Photo of UB occupational therapy students and faculty watch as a Motion Project client uses a device called the Lokomat.

From right, Sue Ann Sisto, chair of the UB Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, and fourth-year occupational therapy students Brooke Blazer and Sydney Szwarcberg watch as Motion Project trainer Kyle Johnson works with client Ashely Kern. Photo: Douglas Levere

Release Date: January 14, 2022

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Portrait of Sue Ann Sisto, chair of the Department of Rehabilitation Science at the University at Buffalo.
“When students come and see a top-notch center like this, they develop a standard in their minds during their professional training in physical and occupational therapy as they begin to learn about spinal cord injury rehabilitation and the impact of injury on every day life. ”
Sue Ann Sisto, PhD, chair of rehabilitation science
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — For Natalie Barnhard and her dream of opening a recovery center for people who have a spinal cord injury, all the right puzzle pieces fell into place at the right time.

The Natalie Barnhard Center for Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation and Recovery opened in Buffalo this fall, welcoming clients who would otherwise have to travel hundreds of miles to find a similar place to work out and, perhaps just as important, bond with other spinal cord injured clients.

And soon, University at Buffalo physical and occupational therapy students will begin to prepare for their clinical experiences, where they’ll learn to work with the most state-of-the-art equipment available thanks to a partnership forged between Barnhard’s Motion Project Foundation and the Department of Rehabilitation Science in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.

Barnhard endured an arduous journey after suffering a spinal cord injury in 2004 that left her paralyzed. She was 24 and working as a new physical therapist when a 600-pound piece of exercise equipment toppled onto her, shattering a disc in her neck and severely damaging another below it. Specialists at Erie County Medical Center treated Barnhard, who then moved to Atlanta in 2005 to undergo extensive treatment at a hospital that specializes in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injuries and neuromuscular conditions.

Motion Project Foundation (formerly Wheels with Wings Foundation) became a vision and personal goal of Barnhard’s early on in her rehabilitation, as she experienced how challenging it can be to obtain critical services such as intense rehabilitation therapy, and acquire necessary home modifications and other equipment that’s needed while recovering from a spinal cord injury.

‘A perfect relationship’

Motion Project Foundation founder and president Natalie Barnhard with her dog Louie.

Motion Project Foundation founder and president Natalie Barnhard with her dog Louie. Photo: Douglas Levere

Eric Alcott, UB’s associate vice president for advancement, health sciences, was an early supporter of Barnhard’s dream.

“I shared with Eric my vision for the center, which at that point was still a dream of mine. He said, ‘We want to help. When you’re ready, let me know.’ A few years later, we started work on the center, I called him up and sure enough, he was a man of his word and said we want to partner,” Barnhard said.

The next key puzzle piece was the arrival in 2018 of Sue Ann Sisto, PhD, as chair of UB’s Department of Rehabilitation Science. Sisto has spent several decades as a clinician caring for people with spinal cord injury as well as further developing her research career studying spinal cord injury rehabilitation.

“It was a perfect relationship that was meant to be, with her background and vision and passion for helping people with a spinal cord injury,” Barnhard said. “I’m so excited because the sky is the limit for what this center can do.”

The partnership with UB will take the forms of research and education. On the research front, Sisto plans to work with Barnhard and the center to create a massive database of information on the benefits of health and wellness programming for people with spinal cord injury.

Such a database could lead to much-needed health care policy changes for individuals living with a spinal cord injury.

Where many insurance providers offer discounts or even free gym memberships for their general members, people who are rehabilitating from a spinal cord injury have to pay out of pocket when they visit a facility like Barnhard’s, the benefits of which extend far beyond the physical rehabilitation that occurs, but can also include psychosocial and even spiritual benefits.

“It’s about having fun, and that camaraderie. It’s so healing,” says Barnhard, who also plans to create support groups and other programming for clients and their families.

Sisto also plans to partner with colleagues from her department’s Center for Assistive Technology, as well as researchers from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, to conduct studies on robotic devices and intervention outcomes with some of the cutting-edge equipment in the center.

Training opportunities for OT, PT students

Fourth-year OT student Brooke Blazer (center) looks on as a client uses the Lokomat, a state-of-the-art robotic gait rehabilitation device designed to provide effective and individualized intensive training to increase the strength of muscles and the range of motion of joints to improve walking.

Fourth-year OT student Brooke Blazer (center) and Motion Project trainer Kyle Johnson look on as client Ashley Kern uses the Lokomat, a state-of-the-art robotic gait rehabilitation device designed to provide effective and individualized intensive training to increase the strength of muscles and the range of motion of joints to improve walking. Photo: Douglas Levere

For the education component, students in UB’s occupational and physical therapy programs will be able to do internships and fieldwork at Motion Project very soon. A few lucky OT and PT students visited the gym earlier this month, where they met with Barnhard and watched as Motion Project trainers worked with clients.

“It would be really beneficial to intern here. It would give us a lot of hands-on experience and broaden the range of patients we can work with,” says Brooke Blazer, a fourth-year OT student. “When we graduate, this is the type of equipment we’ll be seeing so it’s better to work on it now and get accustomed to it.”

And that’s exactly the point of the education aspect of the partnership, says Sisto.

“When students come and see a top-notch center like this, they develop a standard in their minds during their professional training in physical and occupational therapy as they begin to learn about spinal cord injury rehabilitation and the impact of injury on everyday life,” she said.

“Plus, they have an opportunity to learn about equipment they won’t see anywhere else for miles around,” Sisto added. “It’s really going to raise their standards of what a clinic should look like, what equipment should be available to their patients and what they should know spinal cord injury rehabilitation after the clients’ insurance support for rehabilitation services comes to an end.”

Among the facility’s signature pieces of equipment is the Lokomat, a state-of-the-art robotic gait rehabilitation device designed to provide effective and individualized intensive training to increase the strength of muscles and the range of motion of joints to improve walking.

“I had never even heard of it before today,” said fourth-year OT student Sydney Szwarcberg, adding, “This facility is awesome. I’ve never seen a gym like this for the spinal cord injury population. It’s really amazing.”

First-year occupational therapy student Sophia Espinoza (far right) helps as a Motion Project client uses ZeroG, a robotic body weight support system used for gait and balance training.

First-year occupational therapy student Sophia Espinoza (far right) helps as a Motion Project client uses ZeroG, a robotic body weight support system used for gait and balance training. Photo: Douglas Levere

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