Virtual reality rehab an innovative way to get patients moving again

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CLEVELAND - Alex Salem was only three years old when doctors gave his mother a grim prognosis for his life.

"At the time they told us they just didn't know if he would live to go to kindergarten," said Jane Salem.

Salem, 25, would live to shatter all expectations. His life an achievement made sweeter with every passing day but it's not without struggles. Salem was diagnosed with Pyruvate Dehydrogenase Complex, a neurodegenerative disorder, growing worse over time.

Recently Salem's mother tells Fox 8 he almost lost all ability to walk. He is making progress thanks to the Cleveland Clinic's virtual reality rehabilitation facility inside the Mellen Center. It's one of just a few facilities across America used as an alternative to traditional physical therapy.

"It's very rewarding to see them not only being engaged in therapy but meeting their goals," said Dr. Randy Karim Salem's doctor at The Cleveland Clinic. "They come out of here sweating and happy."

The facility resembles an interactive game. Patients are strapped in for assistance, walking on a treadmill attached to a moving platform. During therapy, patients play games projected onto a large screen. The goal is for patients to use their body as a remote.

During Salem's 45-minute virtual reality session he plays soccer, walks through the woods, and directs traffic using his feet. All the games act as a therapeutic tool providing levity during difficult exercises.

"They're getting scores and positive feedback from the system it's really encouraging to see how well they're doing out there," said Matt Streicher, a research engineer at the hospital. "Especially seeing them come off with a smile on their face that's the best part."

Though it looks like fun, the virtual reality therapy is no easy task. Streicher, at the direction of Dr. Karim, increases the treadmill speed and tilts the platform back and forth in order to provide a challenge to patients when necessary.

"It's pretty intense," said Salem. "...I like to compete against myself, I'm a really competitive person."

Salem is definitely winning at the game of life: he recently received his diploma in Communications Management from Cleveland State University. He hopes his story will inspire people with disabilities to live a full life.

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