Joan Schacht had been retired less than a year when she suffered a massive stroke. The 68-year-old Caledonia resident went to the emergency room last October with a headache that she’d had for several days, and the next thing she knew she was recovering from brain surgery.
“I remember waking up in a hospital room and asking ‘What happened?’ ” said Schacht.
Having passed out soon after arriving at the hospital, Schacht didn’t wake up until two and half days later. It was then that she first realized she’d had a stroke.
“I was in shock when they told me,” she said. “I never thought I’d have a stroke. I didn’t have high blood pressure or cholesterol; in fact my blood pressure was usually low.”
Schacht, who had been active and fit, also woke to find she couldn’t walk without help, or do much of anything on her own anymore.
“I had to relearn how to wash my face and brush my teeth,” she said.
Yet, less than a month later, Schacht left the hospital at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, able to walk without a cane or walker. And she gives much of the credit for her success to the ZeroG Gait and Balance Training System by Aretech, which she used during physical therapy sessions at Froedtert.
Invented by Aretech CEO Joe Hidler, the ZeroG system provides patients with dynamic body-weight support while they practice walking and doing other daily living activities. Securely held in a harness, patients move along a 75-foot, ceiling-mounted track, feeling only the vertical lifting force from the overhead motorized trolley — a feeling somewhat like that of walking on the moon.
The system can accommodate up to 300 pounds and offset up to 50 percent of a person’s body weight, according to Cheryl Vorwald, a physical therapist in Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin’s neurosciences rehabilitation department. And, as patients move, the ZeroG monitors information about their movements at a rate of more than 1,000 times per second, so that if a fall is detected, the system can safely catch them.
With just the touch of a button on a touch screen computer (or Ipod or Ipad), therapists can adjust the amount of body weight support, fall distance and other parameters in order to modulate intensity and complexity of each training session, according to Aretech.
“It builds confidence,” said Vorwald. “And once patients trust the system, we can challenge them more.”
ZeroG technology — which Froedtert has had for a little more than a year — also allows the patient to do more self-learning, rather than relying more heavily on the therapist, said Vorwald, 37 and a Park High School graduate. It also frees physical therapists’ hands so that they can use them to facilitate the movement desired, instead of supporting the patient, she said.
Older gait machines involve more complicated strapping systems and are basically a walking tool, Vorwald explained. With the ZeroG, patients can also train for specific tasks, such as stair climbing, side stepping and transferring from one place to another.
“They can use it to learn how to stand on different surfaces, and to practice getting up and down from the floor,” Vorwald said. “It helps develop their core strength.”
And it isn’t just stroke patients who can benefit. ZeroG technology can help people in a variety of situations, including traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and orthopedic injuries.
“It can also be used for prosthetic training,” Vorwald said.
Schacht said she was nervous about using the ZeroG system at first, but it wasn’t long before she trusted it to hold her up.
“I was afraid to stand up at first, but by the second time I used it I was running,” she said. “I hadn’t walked in two weeks, and there I was jogging.”
Also an ovarian cancer survivor — having first been diagnosed in 2002 and again in 2008 — Schacht said she had never experienced anything like the ZeroG system before.
“It helped me recover really fast,” she said. “Once I got on the system, it gave me confidence and I was going all over.”
Seeing Schacht walk today, one might never know she’d had a stroke a few months ago. Even as she faces another round of cancer treatment, her positive attitude shines through. She’s also still working to regain some skills since the stroke and surgery — “My brain needs to find a new pathway and I’m working on it,” she said.
Overall, though, Schacht is amazed with the progress she’s made since October.
“That machine really made the difference," she said. “It’s almost like getting a new life.”
More about the ZeroG system
Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin is one of fewer than 40 hospitals nationwide currently using this technology, according to information from the medical center. Froedtert obtained the ZeroG Gait and Balance Training System in November 2012, through a generous donation made to the Froedtert Hospital Foundation by a deceased patient’s family. For more about the ZeroG system, go to www.aretechllc.com.