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Helping patients is our biggest reward; The treacherous winter weather invariably brings more accidents. KAREN WILSON visits a North East centre of excellence for brain injuries and speaks to patients who are lucky to be alive this Christmas.

IMAGINE having to learn again from scratch how to walk, talk, brush your teeth or make a cup of tea? For those faced with a sudden illness or severe accident, the road to recovery can often take months and even years of intensive rehabilitation.

But there's an international centre of excellence on our doorstep that has helped thousands of people get back their independence.

Walkergate Park on Benfield Road, Newcastle, is one of the most advanced centres of its kind in Europe and a first for the UK in bringing together so many services under one roof.

"Replacing the former Hunters Moor hospital, the pounds 24m centre opened in April 2007. It helps people with neurological and neuropsychiatric conditions, caused by injury or disease affecting the brain, spinal cord or muscles.

When someone back to back to as a that's biggest This could include head injury, Huntington's Chorea, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and motor neurone disease, as well as rare conditions like Guillain-Barre syndrome, a viral illness that affects the nerves and hereditary spastic paraparesis, which affects walking.

It provides accommodation for 68 inpatients: ranging from long-term care for those in minimally conscious states, as well as over 300 outpatient visits a week.

Facilities include en suite bedrooms, specialist equipped gyms, a hydrotherapy pool, knowledge centre, IT suite, multifaith chapel, training and research facilities; all set around landscaped, therapeutic, sensory gardens.

"There aren't very many centres like this in the country and very few provided by the NHS," says service manager Karen Urwin. "The majority tend to be private."

The centre takes a holistic approach, addressing the emotional issues that come with brain injury for both patients and their families. As personalities can sometimes change after a head injury, psychological counselling is offered too.

Although some patients make a full recovery, 100% recovery is very rare for the sort of injuries they see.

"Recovery for most people we see takes a very long time," says physiotherapist Julia Johnson. "It's important that people aren't too ambitious too early on because if you're aiming too high too quickly, it can lower your mood. They have to be realistic. But there is a degree to which you can re-educate the brain and develop new synaptic connections."

Sometimes however it's the small steps towards progress that mean so much to a patient.

help get work or their role "We don't have a lot of patients that walk out of here," says Cath Garrett, clinical team head nurse.

parent, the reward ""Most patients remain in wheelchairs but people underestimate how important things like continence are. We find ways of managing this and that improves a patient's quality of life.

"Just to be able to transfer from a bed to a power chair can give them so much independence. It sounds like something small, but to them it's a massive thing.

"With one patient the only thing he could do was move his finger but we managed to put adaptations on the chair and he was able to get around."

For John Macfarlane, consultant in rehabilitation medicine and neurological disabilities, the job is incredibly rewarding.

"When you help someone get back to work or back to their role as a parent, that's the biggest reward," he says.

Physiotherapist Julia Johnson sums up how the whole team feels. "It's a real privilege to work with people who are wanting to improve," she says.

"It's immensely rewarding to help them gain control over their lives."


MAKING PROGRESS Physiotherapist Vicki Macdonald, left, and occupational therapist Doris Fischer work with a patient as part of his rehabilitation
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Dec 24, 2010
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