SWVA Training Center Residents Join Study
By CHRISTOPHER BROOKE
Staff Reporter - Galax Gazette
BLACKSBURG - In a lab on the fifth floor of the Whittemore building at
Virginia Tech, Nobel Parker's gray tennis shoe slipped on a damp spot on a cream
vinyl floor covering a raised walking track and both feet slid out from under
But a gliding overhead harness caught Parker and kept him from falling all the way and the research students on hand in the Human Factors Engineering and Ergonomics Center rushed to steady him and put him back on his feet.
This was the moment the Tech students had been preparing the Southwestern Virginia Training Center resident for.
Parker and other training center residents have been participating in a study on falls headed by Thurmon Lockhart, a Ph.D. and a Tech assistant professor.
Researchers hope to better understand why falls happen and what they can do to prevent injuries from falls.
That's why Parker, dressed in snug-fitting, black workout shorts and shirt, on Tuesday went through a battery of tests and was covered with square pieces of duct tape to hold sensors, with a wired box in a green pack strapped to his waist.
Researchers trained a video camera and infrared recorders on Parker for more than an hour, culminating in walking back and forth on the raised track.
After measuring his knee and ankle strength, the researchers first got Parker used to standing and balancing on the track whose vinyl base is just like kitchen flooring.
Parker had to walk back and forth the length of the track, which stretches diagonally across the room, with a bank of computers off to the side.
Infrared cameras recorded his movements on the computers, gathering information from plastic balls stuck to Parker for one of those research models that looks like an animated stick figure on the black screen.
His normal walk will go into the databanks for comparison purposes.
For safety's sake, researchers strapped Parker into the gliding harness that would follow him for the 25 or so feet that he would have to walk back and forth.
After several passes, Parker looked steady walking - as steady as a person could be with the harness sliding along behind him.
Student Courtney Haynes told Parker that another test subject was tired after a morning session. “She said, ‘I walked five miles.' We won't make you walk five miles.”
Information gathered by the cameras, plus pressure sensors under the floor, will tell researchers what Parker's muscles were doing during walking - and slipping.
While Parker gave his attention to Karen Poe, the training center's staff development director, at one end of the track with his back turned, students took a misting bottle and dampened an area in the center in full view of the array of cameras.
He walked back, and that's when the slip happened.
“Shoo,” Parker said, while steady on his feet afterward, shaking his head.
On subsequent passes, Parker slowed at the slick area, altering his walk and voiding a second slip.
That's the point of the study, Lockhart told The Gazette, to find ways to keep people from falling and getting hurt.
Data gathered from Parker and other training center residents will be added to research that Lockhart's already done on falls with elderly subjects.
Working with training center residents will expand the scope of the information generated by the safety research, he noted.
Researchers will compare and contrast the findings on the training center residents against those from the older populations, he said. Some of the training center residents might have more strength and balance, which will come into play in catching themselves when they slip.
Lockhart needs to know everything about his subjects, such as height and weight, age, walking characteristics, strength, sensory ability and balance, among others.
He's already made some conclusions about why falls happen, such as the reduction of friction when a surface is covered by snow. He's studied how the senses receive signals of a slip and impending fall and how people react to keep from falling and to protect themselves.
Lockhart found a valuable partner in the Southwestern Virginia Training Center, after Poe learned about the fall research and contacted him with a suggestion.
As a state facility with people living on site, training center officials keep detailed records on factors that affect residents' health, including falls.
Poe's in charge of keeping those records. With help from the staff, she's been compiling reports on falls for each resident for about three years.
Last year's research showed that the 223 residents of the training center have fallen 1,035 times in a three-year period.
The training center keeps information on residents' mobility and plans to mitigate falls, and Poe saw a chance to do more.
She called Lockhart to see if the training center's could help with the study, with the ultimate goal of learning how to make the Carroll County facility and others like it safer.
And the residents could help with the research on the elderly too.
After all, Poe and Lockhart point out, complications from falls are the leading cause of death for those older than 75 and the second leading cause for people between 45 and 75.
Of the 25 residents who will participate, one third will train on Nautilus equipment to see what effect that has on falls; another third will receive balance training; and the others will take part in ordinary training center activities as a control group for comparison.
Residents enjoy traveling to Blacksburg, Poe said. They get to go out to eat and spend part of the day at Tech.
“They love it,” Poe said. “It's one-on-one attention. There's co-eds all around.”
As far as they know, this is the first study of its kind, and it could end up having far-reaching benefits, Poe said.
Researchers with the locomotion lab will use this small-scale study to seek grants to delve deeper into the problem.
“The potential benefit is great, that we can reduce falls,” said training center Director Dale Woods. The research could apply both to training centers and nursing homes.
“This could affect all these people, and it's being done right here in Southwest Virginia,” Poe said.
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