Getting back in the driver’s seat

You do it every day. You get up, get in your car and off you go.

Now imagine for a second that you can’t. You’ve been driving every day for 38 years, but suddenly you are no longer safe behind the wheel of a car.

A stroke left David Gentry of Duncan, S.C., unable to drive, walk or feed himself. But months of hard work with the therapists at Spartanburg Regional and he’s on his way back to living the life he loves. Now with the help of the driving simulator he’s ready to get back on the road.

A silent stroke

On a Sunday in July 2016, Gentry had a headache, nothing bad; he didn’t even need an aspirin. Monday morning his leg felt like it was two inches too long, but he ignored it. By Friday he couldn’t hold his tools, something this electrician of 35 years couldn’t dismiss. When his family finally persuaded him to go to the hospital on Friday night he was told he’d had a stroke. In the hospital Saturday morning he ate breakfast as usual, but by lunch he couldn’t feed himself.

Gentry had a long road to recovery ahead of him.

“Hard work doesn’t bother me,” he said. “But this is some of the hardest work I’ve done in my life.”

Since beginning physical and occupational therapy in the fall of 2016, he has progressed from a wheelchair, to a walker and then to a cane.

Now he’s walking independently, and the avid outdoorsman has made it back to the woods, although he is shooting skeet instead of hunting.

But there is one thing he’s still not ready for -- the road. Since beginning therapy on the driver simulator in spring 2017, Gentry has realized just how far he has to go and he’s OK with that.

“It helped me realize that I know I’m not ready to be on the road driving,” he said. “But it also helped me set goals. I‘m nowhere near ready to drive but I can see it. I can see it down the road. The simulator has helped me realize what I need to do before I get there.”

Not just for stroke patients

Occupational therapy uses activities of daily life to enable and encourage patients to take part in such activities despite a loss of function due to an illness, injury or trauma. Driving is one of the most common activities of daily life that we all take for granted. Occupational therapists use this innovative driving simulator to evaluate and rehabilitate drivers who experience loss of function due to an accident, disability, trauma or other medical condition.

In 2014, Kaitlin McFarlane experienced a traumatic brain injury and concussion. Now, at age 18, she credits her work on the driver simulator with her success in archery. When she first started on the simulator, she couldn’t even hit the target.

“My first time on the simulator I crashed the car,” McFarlane said. “But I started learning how to watch out for things and my reaction times improved.”

Now after completing therapy she is ranked seventeenth in the world for archery among high school girls.

How it works

Made possible by a grant from the Spartanburg Regional Foundation, the driving simulator provides therapeutic driver simulation for occupational therapy patients at the Spartanburg Regional Rehabilitation Services office in the Thomas E. Hannah YMCA.

The clinical driving simulator allows for realistic and engaging simulated driving in a safe and secure environment. Designed by DriveSafety and Johnell Brooks, Ph.D., of the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research, the simulator itself is intended to be a smaller version of the 800–square-foot full immersion simulator located at Clemson.

The simulator’s software leads patients through therapist-inspired activities that measure their performance on different functions. The simulator helps therapists assess reaction time, control, coordination, endurance, visual perception and information processing, and cognitive skills in attention, memory, problem solving and anticipatory thinking.

For high-risk patients, the simulator provides insight into an individual’s risk behind the wheel. Occupational therapists create a treatment plan that focuses on insufficiencies found during an initial evaluation. Results are shared with the patient’s physician, who decides if the patient is ready to get back on the road or whether they need additional rehabilitation.

As for Gentry, he has a goal in mind.

“My birthday’s in April,” he said. “My goal is to be back on the road by my birthday.”

To learn more about the driving simulator at the Spartanburg Regional Rehabilitation Services office in the Thomas E. Hannah YMCA, call 864-560-5150.