by Sid Goldwell
John Minden was a patient at Craig Hospital in Englewood when he was a teenager.
Now he’s a physical therapist who has helped the hospital create a terrain park for those who, like he had, must relearn their mobility skills.
"It’s kind of a playground. It’s a place to learn skills," he said.
In 1976, Minden, then 15, had been jumping on a trampoline at a friend’s home when he landed on his head.
He had a fracture and dislocation in his neck. His initial thought was, he said, that he was paralyzed for life.
"I tried paralysis. I didn’t care for it," he recalled.
His injury was incomplete, he explained, meaning he didn’t have total paralysis. He had surgery that same day at Aurora Presbyterian and eventually spent nine weeks at Craig for rehab.
"I looked more like a brain injury (patient)," Minden said, because his head was shaved and his left side was affected and suffered nerve damage while his right side didn’t require as much rehabilitation.
Even though the recovery process continues to this day, Minden calls himself lucky.
"Fortunately, I left walking," he said.
Minden returned to Craig in 1990, but this time as a physical therapist. He had been teaching an advanced-skills wheelchair class for a few years when the concept of a terrain park came to him.
Physical therapists and their patients, who were learning to navigate their wheelchairs, had to travel into the community - sometimes miles - to find the elements they needed to practice, like curbs, doorways, staris, steep grades and different surface textures.
By the time they arrived, Minden said the patients were exhausted.
So he began to draw up some plans, and in two years, his idea for a terrain park became a reality at Craig.
Craig is world-renowned in spinal cord injury and brain injury rehabilitation, said spokeswoman Brynn Freelander.
She said the hospital consistently ranks as a Top 10 Rehabilitation Hospital by U.S. News and World Report.
Also, Craig is designated as a Magnet organization by the American Nurses Credentialing Center, one of only four rehab programs and 172 hospitals in the country.
It’s no wonder the hospital features an innovative training ground for its patients and their loved ones, Freelander said.
Darrell Musick, the director of physical therapy, said Craig sees about 75 to 80 patients in house, with about 30 outpatients, on a daily basis.
"About 90 percent of our patients could use the terrain park," he said.
Musick said that he has had unexpected requests from people outside the hospital to use the park for other conditions, like MS, though the hospital is still exploring the liabilities of that decision.
The Mike Utley Terrain Park was dedicated July 16. The park is named after former Craig patient and NFL player Mike Utley who was injured during a game as a player for the Detriot Lions.
The Mike Utley Foundation, which is committed to finding a cure and providing support for people living with spinal cord injury, gave grants to help make the terrain park possible.
The park was designed with help from H+L Architecture.
The terrain park is meant for anyone with mobility issues, Minden said.
In this space, patients can learn to walk again, propel a manual chair or operate a power wheelchair; it will also expose patients and their families and friends to the multiple outdoor obstacles they will encounter.
The park’s features include curb progression in varying heights; ramps of varying grades, including one that is ADA compliant and one that is not to stimulate real world situations, Minden said; railings of different styles; and stairs with a variety of rises and runs.
The elements vary in degree of difficulty, too, as patients develop their skills before testing them in real life settings.
"They can practice getting up and down with or without help depending on their level of injury," Minden said.
There is also a simulated doorway patients can practice popping their front wheels up and then using the threshhold to pull themselves through, and a small agility area with varying surface areas, like gravel, speedbumps and cobblestone.
Also, the park includes motivational sentiments in its details. There is a "Never Stop" sign, and donors’ bricks read messages that are touching and humorouss like "Speed bumps make life interesting" and "If you can read this you’ve fallen out of your chair."
"Everybody can take advantage of it," Minden said. "A variety of patients can use the park, from ambulators to powered chairs to training for family and friends. And as more of the staff become familar with it, it will become more in use."
"It’s another reason why Craig is a gem for the Denver area," Freelander said.