Patients gain independence at local hospital’s ‘movie-set’ center

At MedStar\'s National Rehabilitation Hospital, Todd Eckley relearns how to do everyday tasks, such as making a pizza. (WTOP/Geet Jeswani)

WASHINGTON – Todd Eckley’s life changed forever five months ago when he merged onto I-95 near Lorton, Va. He swerved to miss a dump truck, but instead hit a guard rail and flipped his car.

When he woke up, the 52-year-old land surveyer from Dumfries, Va., couldn’t feel his legs. That’s when Eckley says he had an “oh my God moment.”

“I could only barely move my right arm at the time, and I knew I was paralyzed,” Eckley says.

After the accident, Eckley could not talk, walk or even breathe without a ventilator. But he had determination, faith and a goal: to get a little closer each day to the way he was before.

Eckley spent three weeks in an intensive care unit before he was transferred on a stretcher to MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH), where he embraced what he refers to as his “new job.”

His new “workplace” is called Independence Square — a movie-set like section on the first floor of the hospital that serves as a place where patients practice the everyday skills in familiar settings.

Independence Square contains a street corner with a timed crosswalk, a bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen. The area even contains an ATM, a gas pump, a mock grocery store and a diner, complete with red vinyl booths.

It is all about mastering the basics of everyday living. For Eckley, these goals are as fundamental as slicing an onion.

Eckley prides himself on being the cook of his family, and he’s relearning how to cut food using a knife that has a saw-like handle so he can use his whole hand when chopping. And the cutting board he uses has pegs to assist holding the onion in place.

In the Independence Square kitchen, Eckley slices up green peppers for a pizza and sprinkles on cheese, as he manouvers throughout the room in his wheelchair.

He speaks matter-of-factly of his belief that someday he will walk again. But for now, he focuses on being able to get himself in and out of a car.

Kristen Ryan, Eckley’s occupational therapist, says the car used to hone those skills is probably the most popular stop in Independence Square.

The front of the vehicle is cut off, so the body of the car can be lifted to the height of the patient’s own vehicle — be it a sedan, truck or a SUV.

“Getting in and out of the car can be a big barrier for people, but that is how they are going to get home and go shopping, and go back to the community and live full and productive lives, just maybe in a different way,” Ryan says.

This week, Eckley’s new and different life formally begins. He is being discharged from the hospital and heading home to continue his therapy as an outpatient. And he is making the big transition just in time for Thanksgiving.

This holiday, Eckley says he has a lot to be thankful for. And while he can’t lift a turkey just yet, he can mix, chop and do a lot of other things.

The plan, he says, is to gradually build on the skills he learned at NRH, and over time fulfill the self-sufficient promise of a place called Independence Square.

Todd Eckley and Kristen Ryan at Independence Square

Video by Geet Jeswani, special to wtop.com

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