Bay Area rehab program designs workouts for vets


Marine Sergeant J.R. Pierce refuses to let his wheelchair keep him down. In fact, he builds muscle lifting it up.

Eighteen months after being severely wounded by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, Sgt. Pierce is working out again. Not in a traditional gym, but in a first of its kind, outdoor rehab facility at the VA Hospital in Palo Alto.

"Oh, it's nice that it's adapted to us. Most of the gym equipment we come across is made for normal people who can stand and move around," he said.

The equipment was designed with the input of disabled vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It integrates angles that allow wheelchair athletes to perform high-impact exercises.

Adrian Hongo is an engineer with Triactive America, the company that's building the prototypes.

"It provides me with a better challenge, to do something well for these guys, men and women. Because it's for life function, I want to do a good job," he said.

Hongo says the daunting challenge came from younger veterans like Sgt. Phillip Malasig, who missed one form of exercise more than any other.

"Before my accident, I was a big runner and since the accident, I haven't been able to work out my cardio muscle," he said.

A wheelchair treadmill was part of the solution. But Hongo's team also designed weight machines with high-speed motions to produce aerobic workouts. Researchers also believe the outdoor location is providing psychological benefits.

Dr. Wendy Thanassi is director of occupational health.

"You know I was really inspired, that component of athletics and mental self help and those two come together. When you're outdoors exercising, people feel better," she said.

The VA is now hoping to refine the prototypes, and potentially expand the concept to other VA facilities across the country helping veterans like Sgt. Pierce, who plans to push his physical abilities as far as they will go.

"I'd like to climb Half Dome again, climbed the back side and that was nice, really. The only limit is my imagination and I can imagine just about anything," he said.

The VA received a $10,000 federal grant to pay for the equipment. A local construction company donated time and materials to build the outdoor terrace.

Written and produced by Tim Didion

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