Program helps disabled get back behind the wheel

Posted Sunday, Jun. 30, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Adaptive Driving Program To learn more about Texas Health Resource Arlington Memorial Hospital’s Adaptive Driving Program, call the hospital’s Occupational Therapy Department at 817-960-6465.

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Karen Tesmer spent months learning to walk again after a stroke paralyzed the left side of her body last year.

But that wasn’t the only form of mobility Tesmer wanted to regain.

The Grand Prairie assistant principal said she quickly realized once she returned home that she didn’t want to depend on her family and friends long-term to get to work, doctors’ appointments or any other place she wanted to go.

“I was stranded at home,” said Tesmer, 51. “I said, ‘I can’t live like this.’ I need my independence.”

In January, Tesmer became one of the first patients to complete Texas Health Resources Arlington Memorial Hospital’s new Adaptive Driving Program. The program, the only one of its kind in Tarrant County, helps people learn how to drive safely again after age, disease or trauma has left them with cognitive or physical impairments.

Patients, referred by their physicians, are evaluated by an occupational therapist and then spend time on a driving simulator and behind the wheel of a specially modified vehicle to learn what they may need to do to be able to drive again.

Through the program, Tesmer learned that her vehicle needed to be modified with a special turn signal that allows her to activate it with her right hand and a knob on her steering wheel that makes one-handed turning easier.

“It has really given me my freedom back,” Tesmer said.

Lifestyle alteration

Before Arlington’s program launched, the closest Adaptive Driving Program residents could attend was at Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation in Dallas County.

Some cities have limited public transportation options for those with disabilities, which is why restoring patients’ confidence and giving them the skills and tools to drive again is a key to their recovery, said Dr. Kevin Conner, Arlington Memorial’s Stroke Center director and a neurologist.

“It’s a lifestyle alteration if you can’t drive,” Conner said. “It’s a tremendous lift for people to be able to gain their independence again.”

Besides stroke victims, patients who could benefit from the program include those with spinal cord injuries or the loss of a limb through injury or illness, such as diabetes.

Some patients in the program are older residents who may suffer from dementia or are having memory trouble or whose family members have concerns about their behavior behind the wheel, said Dr. Carla Young, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician at Arlington Memorial.

The hospital’s driving simulator can measure a patient’s reaction time while braking and can gauge how well the driver handles distractions and obstacles, such as other vehicles and making turns. That information can be used to teach the patient strategies to improve, such as avoiding rush hour traffic, or not driving after dark, Young said.

The hospital also has two modified vehicles — a sedan and a van — that are equipped with special hand and foot controls to help people with most types of disabilities practice driving.

‘Rewire your brain’

Linda Thacker, a Richardson resident with multiple sclerosis, signed up for the adaptive driving program this spring after a massive relapse left her legs too weak to walk or drive. Before that, Thacker said she relied on public transit or her mom and friends to drive her around, which could be difficult because she also had to bring her scooter along.

She completed the program earlier this month and now has her license to drive her adapted van, which allows her to brake and accelerate with one hand and steer with the other.

“You have to rewire your brain,” said Thacker, 54. “Your hands are totally in control. It becomes natural to drive that way.”

Thacker and Tesmer are among 20 people who have enrolled in the program so far, said Amy Davis, an occupational therapist and driving rehab specialist.

Patients, who don’t have to live in Tarrant County, must be referred by their physician. The program is not typically covered by insurance, so participants can expect to pay between $140 and $160 an hour for evaluation and about $140 to $150 per hour for training, the hospital said.

Susan Schrock, 817-390-7639 Twitter: @susanschrock

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