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Robot puts referee back in the game after stroke

 

Stuart Hill was working as a linesman in a minor hockey double-header when, part-way through the second period, he fell into the boards in front of the players’ bench.

“I thought it was a problem with my skates,” recalls the Calgary technology consultant and father-of-two. When he bent to pick up a puck after an icing call, his legs spun under him and he landed on the ice.

After finishing the game, Hill did a very Canadian thing: he apologized to the other referees for his sloppy skating, and went to ref another game.

It wasn’t until a day later – after driving himself home from the hockey tournament and going to bed to relieve his dizziness — that Hill, a fit 52-year-old, discovered he’d suffered a stroke.

“The next morning, my left hand was not typing properly and I had problem with my left leg,” he said. His wife drove him to their local hospital for blood tests, an x-ray and a scan. He was limping down the hospital hallway – and about to be released – when the doctor asked him to touch his nose and then touch his knee. Hill was quickly transferred to the Calgary Stroke Program at Foothills Medical Centre.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) revealed he’d had a stroke after a clot formed in a small blood vessel in his brain.

Besides the loss of fine motor skills in the initial weeks, the stroke left him with a sense of disbelief. “There was quite a bit of shock,” says Hill. His voice cracks as he talks about how his son in university and daughter in high school rushed to be by this side.

Three days after his stroke, Hill agreed joined an inpatient study led by CPSR research leader Dr. Sean Dukelow. The study uses a robot to diagnose subtle changes in arm movement, hand-eye coordination and reaction time for people who’ve had strokes.

The goal is to better determine fine differences in motor function and to develop personalized and targeted therapy programs to help people achieve optimal recovery.

“Because I’m an IT guy, I enjoyed it,” Hill says. “It quantifies the progress you’re making. I like the idea of finding new solutions to old problems.” Study participants sit with their arms attached to horizontal plates that can move back and forth and side to side. These plates slide under a screen while visual images (coloured balls) appear to the right, left and centre, requiring patients to move their arms to knock away the incoming images. A sophisticated computer linked to the robot measures how patients see and perceive the location of their limbs, the accuracy at hitting their targets and speed of movement.

While this sounds complicated, the results are very clear. The robot provides a highly sensitive measurement of arm movement, accuracy of movement, vision and arm perception.

On this day, Hill sits in the robot to demonstrate how it works, checking his progress against earlier efforts. “When I left hospital, I felt about 65 per cent,” he says. He underwent two months of therapy after he was discharged home. “Now I’m 98 per cent.”

That may be, but Hill is giving 100 per cent of his free time to helping others. When he’s not at work, he trains and coaches hockey referees, manages social media for the amateur hockey association, and volunteers for the Heart & Stroke Foundation. “I believe it’s important to make your time on Earth worthwhile.”

 

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