Wounded Warriors Gain Independence in Renovated Rooms

By Elaine Wilson
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas, Aug. 17, 2006 - Wounded warriors at Brooke Army Medical Center here now have a place to call home during their recovery thanks to a generous influx of money from global war on terrorism funds.

With more than $600,000 in hand, post leaders turned 24 standard barracks rooms built for two into 12 spacious living spaces for one, outfitted to comfortably accommodate recovering servicemembers with varying degrees of impairments.

With the 12-room addition, completed last month, the barracks near BAMC now have 24 wheelchair-accessible rooms, 15 of which are already occupied.

"With just the original 12 rooms, we were running out of space due to an increased numbers of patients from the global war on terrorism," said Army Lt. Col. Barbara Holcomb, Special Troops Battalion commander. "We needed additional rooms for servicemembers who are in rehabilitation, but no longer need to be hospital inpatients."

The renovated barracks rooms bear little resemblance to their pre-alteration state. Contractors tore walls down, lowered light switches and sinks, ripped out tubs and installed shower seats, and even removed the front door springs so the doors wouldn't swing shut on occupants.

"We started at the threshold and worked our way through the room, breaking down barriers," said Bill Blount, chief of Engineering Services Division. "If the walk space was narrow, we took down the wall; if there was a cabinet restricting movement, we removed it."

Even the threshold was altered to remove the 1-inch "barrier" at the doorway so a wheelchair could easily pass through or a soldier learning how to use a prosthesis wouldn't trip over it.

"We took that same consideration all the way through the rooms," Blount said.

Modifications were based on input from engineers, architects, physical therapists, orthopedists, occupational therapists and psychologists. "We wanted to ensure (wounded servicemembers') mental and physical well-being was being considered during the planning process," Blount said.

Capt. Christopher Ebner, staff occupational therapist and officer in charge of amputee occupational therapy services, evaluated the rooms pre- and post-renovation to ensure recovering soldiers had a safe and accessible environment.

"As an occupational therapist, I conduct home evaluations to see how patients are functioning in their daily life," he said. "I ensure they are capable of both maneuvering around and achieving everything as independently as possible, and that's what I kept in mind when walking through the rooms."

Ebner and a team of occupational therapists put forth their recommendations with independent living at the forefront. "We sought input from patients so we could understand what they saw as limitations," he said. "But, we also wanted to simulate, to an extent, a real-world environment."

As a result, the rooms, while barrier-free, still allow for continued progress so servicemembers can later adapt to a world that is not designed for the mobility impaired.

"We made a room that would enable servicemembers to adapt and gain proficiency in their new way of accomplishing daily activities," Blount said. "We set up an environment so a soldier can succeed."

As they adapt to outpatient living, health care providers monitor the wounded warriors' progress, and they aren't moved before they're able to handle the new environment.

"It's a process," Ebner said. "We evaluate patients as they progress through their rehabilitation and move them, when they're fully able, to a standard room."

The response to the rooms has been positive, said Rob Robinson, who, as barracks manager, gets a firsthand look at the soldiers' progress.

"I haven't received any complaints," Robinson said. "The modified rooms are a great place for soldiers to recover."

Army Sgt. Ernesto Godoy, an amputee adjusting to a prosthesis, has lived in a modified room since October. "I like it," he said. "It's comfortable and wide enough to maneuver around in, even with a wheelchair. Everything is set up to make life easy for us."

With positive reviews in hand, the post has received funds to refit another 12 rooms, which will bring the total of modified rooms up to 36. Blount said the project will soon be under way, but he added that he hopes, despite the amount of work required, that the rooms stay patient-free.

"It would be ideal if they were all empty," he said.

(Elaine Wilson is assigned to the Fort Sam Houston Public Information Office.)

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