Playing Wii helps rehab patients get back in the game of life

A right and then a left and he’s down for the count. For the second time in a row Elizabeth Bofki has gone 10 rounds with her opponent ending in a knock-out in her favor.

The bell rings. The crowd roars. Bofki needs some water and a rest so she leaves the ‘ring’. For the past 15 minutes she has been working out by playing Wii boxing. She’s a patient at Royal Victoria Hospital’s (RVH) Rehabilitation Day Program and will now sit for a moment to watch Carlos Quadros, in a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury, and Rob Doan, who has multiple sclerosis, play a few rounds of tennis.

The sweat pours off her brow as she hands the Wii controller to Carlos, but she feels great. It’s been less than a year since Elizabeth was told she had a cancerous tumour in her left ankle and the only course of action, in her case, was to amputate. “I remember hearing the C – word and I immediately had a panic attack. My adrenalin started to flow. I was shaking,” recalls Elizabeth. “Really, I was stunned, I thought, no way,” she says.

But for her, panic quickly gave way to acceptance and her strong drive to move forward to recovery.

“I took each step as it came. I have to say the most frightening experience for me was not knowing if the tumour was cancerous or not. I remember seeing a patient in a wheelchair bald and with a leg amputated and that really scared me.” A few months later Elizabeth found herself in the same situation. “It really hit me when I woke up from the surgery and tried to move my toes and they weren’t there.”

Her saving grace was the fact she was in such great shape prior to her diagnosis. Always on the go, Elizabeth was a regular in the local gym, a motorcycle enthusiast and could be seen on her daily walks with her dog Gypsy. In fact, a week after the surgery, Elizabeth was on crutches walking up and down the hallway of the Quebec hospital, where she had her surgery, getting ‘some cardio’, as she put it.

“My orthopedic surgeon told me the biggest benefit to my recovery was, and will be, my level of fitness,” she says. “I just can’t stress it enough. It keeps you busy and helps you cope with the emotions.” So for Elizabeth having the Wii as part of her therapy program at RVH is perfect. She began with Wii tennis, but said the game wasn’t challenging enough so she moved on to boxing.

“I love it. It gives me a real cardio pump. If I had the money I would buy one for my house,” she says. “The boxing feels like the real thing.” While it may not be the real thing, the benefits are the real thing. When she is playing a game on the Wii, what Elizabeth is actually doing, according to RVH physiotherapist Catherine Vingerhoets, is valuable therapy which will improve her dynamic balance, endurance, co-ordination and agility. “It actually was Carlos who brought the idea to us. He had previously been at Lyndhurst in Toronto for his inpatient rehabilitation and they were getting a Wii system just as he was leaving their program to come here,” Vingerhoets says.

After doing some research, and submitting a proposal to the RVH Auxiliary for the funds to purchase the Wii, the game was integrated into the Rehab Day Program. It is believed that RVH’s outpatient rehabilitation day program is the first one north of Toronto, to incorporate Wii into patient therapy. “The staff were impressed with the innovative ideas and the patients love it,” says Vingerhoets. She explains that the system is not appropriate for all patients, but the Wii is currently used by approximately 15 to 20 patients in the program.

The game is not used in isolation, but rather as an adjunct to traditional therapy activities as part of a multi-disciplinary approach which involves physiotherapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, recreational therapy, nursing and social work. Seniors may be the next population group to reap the benefits of a Wii system. “In England the Wii game is being used by seniors to improve muscle condition, balance, flexibility and aerobic capacity,” she says. “The elderly and infirm in England have been urged to embrace computer technology and exercise with a Wii Fit console to help reduce their risk of falling because using the computer game, in which players have to balance on a board and follow instructions from a screen, could improve their mobility. That may be down the road, but for now, Elizabeth Bofki wants the guys to hurry up so she can go for another round and a knock out.