A first step to recovery

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Mystic — Seven months ago Pat Reuss was recuperating from back surgery and trying to navigate an upstairs hallway in his home with the support of a walker and to work up the courage to try to get down the stairs.

Decades of football, ice hockey, skiing and all kinds of other sports and activities had taken a toll on the 46-year-old Pawcatuck resident’s lower back.

He was pretty much “a mess” after the surgery, struggling to get moving again. But today, with hard work, determination and the help of a balance system designed and created by Jan Chamberlain, owner of First Physical Therapy in Mystic and Westerly, Reuss, an Electric Boat executive, is up and active again, and by his estimation, 85 percent fully functioning.

On a recent weeknight, Reuss and his 13-year-old son, also Patrick, were at the Mystic First Physical Therapy location, working on the balance system to build strength, confidence and muscle memory.

Young Patrick, who is entering eighth grade at Stonington Middle School, suffers from Sever’s disease, a bone injury in the growth plate in the lower back of the heel that is not unusual for growing children and adolescents. It was his first time on the FirstStep, the balance system for which Chamberlain has a provisional patent pending. She’s still tweaking the apparatus and expects to receive a patent in about two years.

Her system is mobile, built from the ground up, and can be sized to any location. It’s comprised of an overhead track and harness system — she had the harnesses specially made in Branford and can accommodate up to a size 4X — that allows patients to safely train, moving freely without fear of falling.

Patients can practice standing up from a chair, navigating stairs, treadmill walking, and balance training; and for athletes, it lends support for improving jumping, lunging and squatting skills.

With more than three decades of experience in the industry and 14 years of owning a physical therapy practice, Chamberlain first became intrigued with the idea of building FirstStep in 2015, when she read an article in a trade journal on balance and the risk of falling.

According to the American Physical Therapy Association, the U.S. health care system spent $50 billion on falls in 2015, a number that Chamberlain estimates to be closer to $60 billion today. It’s proven, she said, that strength and balance exercises will reduce the fall risk, especially in older Americans.

In the harness, which attaches to the overhead track with ropes and clips, a patient is unweighted, or about 50 percent of their body weight, Chamberlain said. That allows them more capability to step over cones, jump on a mini trampoline, climb or descend stairs, and do other activities. With the support, a client gains confidence, reconditions muscles, and is able to “break through their barriers and achieve their goals,” said Chamberlain.

When the senior Patrick Reuss started on FirstStep, he recalls, “I was moving pretty gingerly.” Chamberlain interjected he was barely moving.

“But it’s remarkable,” he said, motioning towards the FirstStep, “that this, and pool therapy, were my godsend. I was able to build strength and confidence. I didn’t have the fear that I otherwise might have. It definitely gives you piece of mind.”

While still working to refine the apparatus — Chamberlain just added artificial turf on the floor so athletes with cleats recovering from sports injuries can use it — she continues to work with patients who have had joint replacements, suffer from peripheral neuropathy, have incurred concussions, or are disabled by chronic lower back pain. Not everyone is a candidate for FirstStep, she said, but many patients are.

Her reputation, she said, is to get people moving again. “You’ll hear people say, ‘Go see Jan if you want to get your life back,’” she said.

'Brain to muscle'

With assistance from the harness, patients are able to move in a more bio-mechanically correct manner, and, when they’re through with the physical therapy, that carries over into everyday life.

“There’s a neuromuscular reconnect. It allows the muscle to engage when before it was inhibited. It’s brain to muscle,” she said.

Patients know it works. Some, who were unable to get in and out of a car, or safely off a curb, move easier, and safely now. It helped to teach a 95-year-old to squat to retrieve items he dropped, enabling the man to stay in his home. Another patient, who suffered a stroke a decade ago and was still unstable on her feet, was recently able to walk on a beach.

“In the harness, you are just more capable and that carries over,” said Chamberlain.

Jan Chamberlain has designed the overhead track and harness system that allows patients to safely train to gain confidence and retrain muscles, with the goal of improving functional skills. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Jan Chamberlain has designed the overhead track and harness system that allows patients to safely train to gain confidence and retrain muscles, with the goal of improving functional skills. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Business Snapshot

What: First Physical Therapy

Where: 14 Clara Drive, Suite 3, Mystic; 85 Beach St., Building D, Westerly

Contact: (860) 245-0851; (401) 348-8112

What else: FirstStep balance training system is located at the Mystic location

Website: www.firstptri.com

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