Hunter Banks, 5, wobbles a little, the result of cerebral palsy. He tends to do things with only his left hand. But when he plays baseball on Nintendo's Wii, he grips the controller with both hands and puts every ounce of his compact frame into the swing.
It is here, in the therapy room at Shriners Hospital for Children in the Avenues, that Hunter, son of Mark and Brandy Banks of Taylorsville, forgets to favor his stronger left side, driven by the urge to win the game. Lost in the joy of the tennis, golf or tanks game, he is just like every other little boy. And he grows stronger.
Shriners is among an ever-growing number of facilities nursing homes, hospitals, rehab centers and others that are using the popular video game system for the physical activity it offers. At Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan rebuild wounded bodies using Wii. It provides diversion and entertainment to a sometimes repetitive process.
It's not always easy, say therapists, to get people of any age to exercise weak muscles or atrophied limbs. But the game engages them. They're playing, not working. And the results can be dramatic.
"I think it's done wonders for him," said Mindy Petersen of South Jordan, gesturing toward her son, Brady, who's taking his turn swinging the remote.
Brady Petersen broke his right elbow on Christmas Eve and it had to be pinned back together. Every couple of weeks, he goes to Shriners for therapy for his right arm, which has limited motion. Both he and Hunter also have the systems at home now and their parents agree they take what they learn in therapy back home to work on skills. It's made such a difference to Brady that his need for therapy is ending.
"This is a fairly new tool for our department," said occupational therapist Chris Pratt, who, along with physical therapist Mark Lange supervises the session, alternating the action between the boys so everyone has a good workout and no one is bored. "They are motivated by the Wii and it's great for increasing strength."
It's not motion or balance, but improving how he uses his limited vision that brings Cole Hazel, 7, to therapy. The son of Rich and Kori Hazel of Murray, Cole is a brain tumor survivor who has left-side paralysis and wears a special corrective boot on his left foot to aid his mobility.
The brain tumor was diagnosed when he was 18 months old. The therapists use the Wii to help him build eye-hand coordination. He's got a limited field of vision and they want to help him improve his use of it as much as possible, his mom says.
He can use only one hand and that is not going to change, Pratt said, but "he is still able to play. That's really huge." And his mom notes that he doesn't have to look at the remote all the time. He can maneuver its simple buttons while watching the results on the TV screen.
The progress is so huge, in fact, that his parents are using Wii as a motivational tool to help him do well in first grade. If he does, he'll get a Wii at home at the end of the year, Kori Hazel said, "a graduation gift."
"Cole is different from his friends. But these are games he can say that he plays, too, and that opens a new social avenue," she says.
The social aspect for these children can't be underestimated, Brandy Banks said. He has friends, but they have to be careful with him. Because his balance is so poor, a tiny bump can knock him down and then he's devastated. The video games are, to some degree, an equalizer and a shared experience.The therapy sessions with the Wii work well, too, because they're a group activity, Pratt said. The kids play with others and get stronger at the same time.