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Virginia receives top spinal cord injury health care designation

Published: Sep. 22, 2021 at 11:32 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Virginia is now one of the top states in the country for people to receive treatment for spinal injuries.

The Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) Center for Rehabilitation Science and Engineering (CERSE), Central Virginia VA Health Care System (CVHCS), and Sheltering Arms Institute have partnered together to form the State Consortium for Spinal Cord Injury Care, a collaborative effort which has earned the commonwealth federal designation as one of only 14 Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Model Systems Centers in the U.S.

This also makes VCU one of only four centers in the nation to have a dual designation as an SCI and traumatic brain injury (TBI) model systems center.

The distinction brings with it a $2.2 million grant award funded over five years by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research. Research like this is what helped Richmond resident Jackson Collins regain some of his mobility after a bike accident back in 2020.

“I was at Belle Isle and I crashed. I clipped a rock on my back tire going downhill,” said Collins. “I landed on the top of my head and was like ‘Oh, that was pretty bad, alright let’s get up try again,’ and I couldn’t really get up.”

Collins said the injury left him almost completely paralyzed, with little hope of regaining mobility.

“I actually couldn’t feel anything below my injury at first. I couldn’t breathe on my own, I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t eat,” Collins said. “People were telling me like it was not even a possibility.”

As fate would have it, Collins was injured just weeks after the Sheltering Arms Institute first opened its doors. He says after being admitted for treatment, he began seeing a return of his mobility as early as one week into his rehabilitation.

“I went from lying in a bed, not being able to eat, talk, speak or move to be able to move around in a power chair,” Collins said. “I was even able to flicker my feet by the end of that week.”

Jackson was one of the institute’s first success stories, but now with the SCI Consortium, Sheltering Arms will be able to provide its array of state-of-the-art rehabilitation technologies with resources from VCU’s Rehabilitation Center and the VA Hospital.

“This patient population specifically requires a community to come together to care for them in order to get the optimal outcomes, and really return them to the highest possible function,” said Sheltering Arms CEO Alan Lonbardo.

The institute is also strengthening the relationship it has with organizations, like the United Spinal Association of Virginia (USAV), to bring more treatment options to a patient wherever they are.

“United Spinal’s role within that is being able to provide the community with resources for the patients as they transition home after their discharge from inpatient rehab,” said USAV executive director Richard Bagby. “What Sheltering Arms Institue has done with this collaboration is really brought everything together in a space that is on par with the excellence of care that was already being provided.

Sheltering Arms says the designation recognizes the Consortium’s integrated system of healthcare from hospital treatment, to community-based services, as well as its innovative interdisciplinary research program to improve the lives of Virginians who have sustained an SCI.

“Folks no longer have to leave the Richmond area to get that car, which is traditionally what some patients and their families have had to do,” said Sheltering Arms Chief Medical Officer Richard Kunz. “Our goal in building the Sheltering Arms Institute was to address that disparity so that Richmonders, and really all Virginians, no longer have to leave the state to get the best care really in the world.”

Sheltering Arms says the Consortium will tackle two research studies, including the use of noninvasive electrical stimulation, to improve both arm and hand muscle mass and nerve function. The second proposed study will identify specific sources of health inequities following SCI, which aims to identify practical solutions that can improve rehabilitation access and health outcomes for people from rural areas, as well as racial and ethnic minority backgrounds.

“I thought they did a miracle here, I still do,” said Collins. “I’m more than ecstatic to see that it’s happening here. Anywhere would be great, but it’s happening here, so that’s pretty cool.”

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