Unique rehabilitation hospital offers patients their best chance at getting their lives back
New University of Utah Health facility helps people get range of motion back after traumatic injury
SALT LAKE CITY — Ohlen Sugihara grew up cliff jumping off the shores of the Big Island of Hawaii. He’s no stranger to the dangers of large bodies of water.
On July 1, however, he took a ride on a rope swing into the Pineview Reservoir and landed himself in big trouble.
He hit the sand headfirst under just 3 feet of water.
“I was face down in the water and I couldn’t move anything. I was at the point where I was about to drown,” Sugihara recalls. “I had hope that my body would turn over just so I could get a gasp of air. Somehow, it did.”
The 23-year-old member of the U.S. Air Force, who is stationed at Hill Air Force Base, said his brother and girlfriend ran into the water to save him.
“They knew I was a strong swimmer, so something had to be wrong,” he said. Lucky for him, the duo dragged him to the shore without further injury.
Sugihara had broken his neck, resulting in a spinal cord injury and instant whole-body paralysis. He couldn’t move a thing.
“I was just grateful to be alive,” he said. “It was one of the most scariest things I’ve ever been through.”
Fast forward just four weeks, and Sugihara is walking, with the help of a ZeroG Gait and Balance System at University of Utah Health’s new Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital, the first of its kind in Utah. Therapists there say Sugihara will walk out on his own in a little less than two weeks.
The 75-bed inpatient rehab hospital offers state-of-the-art equipment, including the world’s longest ZeroG track, among other technologically advanced devices that help patients get their range of motion back after traumatic injury.
“There is an exceptional focus on hospitality. It’s not like a typical hospital,” the facility’s executive medical director, Dr. David Steinberg, said. As U. Health’s division chief for physical medicine and rehabilitation, Steinberg said he’s been around the country to scope out provisions that give patients the best chances at living a normal life.
“I feel like I have a better attitude being here because I have a second chance,” Sugihara said. “I can push myself beyond my limits. There are no barriers.”
His physical therapist said Sugihara is doing well, often opting for additional sessions even when he’s already tired.
“His body is tired all the time, but that never stops him,” said Aaron Lowry.
The facility is replete with opportunities for people who believe their lives will never be the same.
A garage filled with adaptive bikes and skis and kayaks gives patients an idea of what they’re capable of, said Keegan Buffington, mobility program coordinator.
“Whether or not someone has an injury should not exclude them from doing what they enjoy doing,” he said. “Recovery is not just about surviving, but thriving and being able to enjoy life.”
The facility can help engineer any kind of adaptation or assistive device for any part of life that a wheelchair-bound or otherwise disabled patient might face after leaving the hospital.
Smart hospital rooms also give the patient a sense of independence that might have been taken away by their injury, said occupational therapist James Gardner. He said having to call a nurse for every desired function can leave patients feeling isolated and defeated.
The rooms at the Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital are equipped with Apple iPads that control the blinds, the lights, the doors, the bed, the television and more. If a patient has lost the ability to speak or touch, a mouth- and air-controlled device is also available.
In addition to the best available rehabilitation tools, the hospital offers a simulated training bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, to help patients relearn the basic techniques and motions that able-bodied individuals often take for granted — like getting out of bed, climbing into the bathtub or even sitting on the toilet.
“This way we’re able to assess their safety before they go home,” said Chris Noren, director of therapy services at the U. He said that about 80% of patients will return home from their stay at the hospital and many will be alone at some point during the day.
“They’ll need to be able to get their own food and be able to transport themselves without help,” Noren said.
The hospital’s kitchen has a number of upgrades — moving shelves and countertops, induction stovetop and cabinet racks that lower — to showcase and demonstrate what is possible for patients as they try to regain their normal lives.
The entire floor, Noren said, is designed to simulate real life. It even has a miniature golf course, to teach higher level balance, as well as other outdoor activities and surfaces to get patients used to walking on uneven ground.
“We see so many different levels of ability,” said Steinberg. Golf or gardening, he said, is sometimes a more meaningful form of exercise for some people.
“The mental health piece of recovery is so important,” he added.
Since it opened in May, the Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital has never reached full occupancy, but that’s expected when a hospital opens in the middle of a pandemic, Steinberg said. At most, the facility, which is uniquely situated between top-graded medical hospitals and boatloads of researchers across the U.’s campus, has had about 48 patients so far.
But now that it is fully operational, Steinberg said he expects the rooms to fill.
The Wasatch Front has a variety of outdoor recreational opportunities, which bring adventure-seekers from abroad. An active lifestyle, he said, is a common precursor to trauma.
The building, located southwest of the Huntsman Cancer Institute, at 85 N. Medical Drive, has been in the works for more than a decade. It’s namesake, Craig H. Neilsen, a University of Utah alumni who struck it big in the gaming industry in Nevada, was injured in a car accident in 1985 and became a quadriplegic. He died in 2006 and wasn’t able to see the final product, but always wanted the hospital to become a unique and valuable resource to the Mountain West region of the country.
It is the most advanced and only brick-and-mortar facility supported by the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, which provided more than half of the $104 million required to build the hospital. Large donations also came from the Dumke Jr. Foundation and Lynn and Cecily Woodbury, among others.
Two brightly colored paintings of Neilsen, who was bound to a wheelchair after the accident, hang on the walls of the expansive lobby area at the hospital. They were both painted by patients who had endured traumatic injury and the rehabilitation process that ensues. In addition, Neilsen’s legacy lives throughout the walls of the carefully thought-out facility, including his vision that people who are compromised with injury can live full and productive lives afterward.
“It’s a place where people do things they wouldn’t normally be able to do,” Steinberg said. “And recover to the best of their abilities. There’s nothing else like it out there.”
Sugihara is awaiting a medical discharge from his more than four-year turn in the military, at which point, he will pursue automotive technology, as his love of cars runs parallel to his love of the ocean.
“I really want to be able to swim again,” he said.
The odds are — that he will.