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  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    Facebook: Bob Hammerstrom at The Nashua Telegraph


    Occupational therapist Marsha Reynolds and Dennis O'Brien demonstrate Wednesday, July 6, 2011, how a NESS electronic therapy device was used to bring back mobility in O'Brien's right arm and leg after suffering a stroke.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    Facebook: Bob Hammerstrom at The Nashua Telegraph


    Dennis O'Brien demonstrates Wednesday, July 6, 2011, how a NESS electronic therapy device was used to bring back mobility to his limbs after suffering a stroke.
  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom


    Facebook: Bob Hammerstrom at The Nashua Telegraph


    Dennis O'Brien demonstrate Wednesday, July 6, 2011, how a NESS electronic therapy device was used to bring back mobility in O'Brien's right hand and leg after suffering a stroke.
Sunday, July 17, 2011

Technology aids Merrimack man’s recovery from stroke

NASHUA – Dennis O’Brien has lost some distance off his golf swing this season.

His backswing is slow, and his drives are coming up a little short. But the Merrimack resident, and amateur golfer, doesn’t mind.

Nine months ago, he wasn’t sure he’d ever play again.

In October, a stroke left O’Brien, now 46, completely paralyzed on the right side of his body. “I didn’t know if I was ever going to walk again,” he said earlier this month. “I was terrified.”

But after months of hard work, along with help from a new medical technology, O’Brien has regained use of his arm and leg. He returned to work last month as a district manager for Frito-Lay, and, earlier this summer, he made his triumphant return to the driving range, where he is working to get his game back on track.

“The ball’s not quite going as far,” O’Brien said with a laugh. “But the funny part is, I had to slow my swing down, and now it’s better than ever.

“It’s just incredible. I’m seeing improvement every day,” he said, seated comfortably at St. Joseph Hospital, where he continues to receive therapy two times each week. “Many people told me I wouldn’t get (movement) back, but I’m proving people wrong as we speak.”

Hospital therapists, who have worked with O’Brien for months, credit his resolve and perseverance for his drastic improvements. But they also point to the technologies – the NESS H200 and NESS L300, which were released about five years ago by Bioness, a California-based medical technology firm.

The devices – one shaped like a cuff that fits around the lower leg, and another unit that circles the forearm – use electrical pulses to stimulate nerves and activate muscles that have been affected by the stroke.

A stroke, usually caused by an interruption of blood flow to the brain, doesn’t damage the muscles directly. Instead, it disrupts communication between the brain and the nerves, which leaves the muscles effectively paralyzed, according to Jamie Morse, a physical therapist and St. Joseph’s outpatient rehabilitation services manager, who has worked with O’Brien since the winter.

Before the Bioness devices, stroke patients, along with those with multiple sclerosis, cerebral and other conditions, typically resorted to braces that stabilize the limb, Morse said. But under the new technology, the electrical shocks stimulate the nerves directly, exercising the muscles and re-establishing the passageway to the brain.

“It improves the circuitry between the brain and the nerves again,” Morse said last week, sitting alongside O’Brien as he demonstrated the device. “The results you see are incredible.”

O’Brien’s improvement has been stark in the seven months since he started using the devices.

When he first arrived at Boston’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Center in the days after the Oct. 19 stroke, O’Brien couldn’t walk, and when he started physical therapy at St. Joseph’s in December, he couldn’t move his fingers or toes. “They kind of teach you how to walk again, 10 feet at a time,” he said. “It was a very slow process.”

But within days of starting on the Bioness equipment, O’Brien was seeing dramatic improvement. Starting in December, he moved quickly from depending on a four-pronged cane to walk, to a standard cane to the Bioness boot. And in April, he lost the boot entirely.

“When I got done with the leg thing, I was flying through (the hospital),” he said. “I would knock someone down if they were in my way.”

He still wears the arm unit, developing his writing, squeezing and other fine motor skills. But he’s hoping to complete that therapy in the coming weeks, he said.

“It’s amazing to see how far he’s come,” said Marsha Reynolds, O’Brien’s occupational theapist, who works for St. Joseph’s rehabilitiation services clinic. “He’s turning keys, using zippers, turning door handles. . . . His functional movement patterns are all coming in.”

The work hasn’t come easily. In addition to therapy sessions at the hospital, O’Brien has had to wear the electrical devices at home, up to three hours each day.

Determined to recover, O’Brien started renting the equipment for himself last winter after he saw a demonstration. Most insurance companies don’t fully cover the costs yet, so he has had to come up with the money – $1,000 per month for the two pieces.

“It’s definitely worth it. I never had any question,” he said. “But I know it’s not something everyone can afford.”

As time passes, the technologies are becoming more common. The federal Medicare program is participating in a study on the technologies, and the American Stroke Association recently included them among its best practices, said Morse, O’Brien’s phsyical therapist. And more and more insurance companies are starting to cover the costs, allowing patients access to them at home.

“That’s definitely still an obstacle for people, but it’s getting better,” Morse said. “We can use it here, but it’s really best if they can use it at home every day. . . . That’s where we really see the biggest improvements.”

For O’Brien, the results are continuing to come.

Having already returned to the driving range, he is hoping to get back on the basketball court soon after. But the biggest remaining step will come in September, when O’Brien rejoins his candlepin bowling league.

“My golf game is coming along, but bowling is the big thing,” he said.

“That’s what I’m focusing on now.

“I’m not quite there yet, but I’m getting stronger,” he said confidently. “I’ll be there. I know I will.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com.