VA working with MUSC on stroke study

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- The Department of Veterans Affairs says strokes are the leading cause of disability for the country's aging veterans. That's why it's funding a new study at the Medical University of South Carolina that could improve the lives of thousands.

For Carrie Cooper, repetition is healing. She may not get it perfect every time, but it all adds up to getting better.

Cooper remembers the day she had her stroke. It was May 24, 2013.

"It was tingling real bad and I felt so dizzy, nauseated," she said. "[The doctor] told me I wasn't going to walk or talk again."

Movement in her legs has mostly returned, but she still struggles to control her left arm.

"I feel like it has a mind of its own so I let it do its thing," Cooper said.

It became so independent, she gave it a name. "I call my arm Betsy," she said.

Experts say close to 800,000 people suffer strokes each year in the U.S. Of those who survive, more than three-quarters have some arm paralysis.

Stroke is also the leading cause of disability for veterans at the VA Medical Center.

"Stroke damages the part of the brain that controls the arm," said Dr. Michelle Woodbury, an associate professor at MUSC and a research health scientist at the VA.

Woodbury is researching how to get better control of stroke recovery. She's implemented a $1 million Veterans Affairs study at MUSC.

"It's a four-week study. We provide 12 sessions of intensive occupational therapy," she said. "We're measuring, in a very precise way, the movement patterns. We test them before and then after this intervention and we can tell not only did someone get better, what got better, how much did their arm movement improve."

Using the results of the motion sensor, the therapists set up a customized program using information they don't usually get.

"Therapists always try to customize rehab but unfortunately they don't often have the tools available to them to really precisely tell them where a patient is," said Steve Kautz, a biomedical engineer at the VA.

The occupational therapy is intensive. Patients repeat daily activities 20 times. Woodbury says they would only repeat them two or three times in a normal session.

"I have to tell Betsy she has to calm down so I can get through it because this is going to help me," Cooper said.

Cooper is only two weeks in, but already she's seeing improvement.

"I can do almost a little in turn it over, which I couldn't do (before)," she said.

Woodbury says 30 people have already completed the trials and they have been successful. The study will go on for three more years. In that time, the VA will test 120 patients and she hopes this specialized approach will change treatment nationwide.

Meanwhile, Cooper already feels special. It might be a struggle now, but she's working on it, hoping to find steadiness after treatment is done.

MUSC and the VA are looking for more participants. If you've had a stroke and would like to take part in the occupational therapy program, contact the Center for Rehabilitation Research and Neurological Conditions at MUSC at 843-792-8970.