Steps in the Right Direction

by Erich Van Dussen

As an associate professor of physical therapy in the School of Health and Human Services, J.J. Mowder-Tinney, Ph.D., is experienced in helping students learn and patients heal. But three years ago she began tutoring a different type of pupil: a local company whose “graduation day” last November saw the launch of a remarkable new device that promises significant benefits for her profession.

Based in Victor, N.Y., Gorbel, Inc., has a national reputation for providing high-tech crane solutions for construction and other industries. As Betty Dolce, a Gorbel general manager, puts it, “We’re very good at lifting very heavy, precious objects with a lot of dexterity.”

That description could refer to people as well as building materials; but although Gorbel had considered entering the medical-equipment marketplace for several years, it took a consulting relationship with Mowder-Tinney for the SafeGait 360˚ Balance and Mobility Trainer to take shape. A unique dynamic body-weight support device, SafeGait 360˚ uses a harness suspended below a ceiling-mounted track to offer patients greater mobility during PT sessions, while a proprietary software system collects data about the patient’s progress.

Crane-type designs have been present in health care for years, helping injured patients get in and out of bed or aiding PT clients while using treadmills or similar devices. But the SafeGait enhances “over the ground” therapy techniques, Dolce says, allowing a client to safely participate in a wider variety of exercises without interruption. This can potentially accelerate recovery times, while freeing therapists—who previously might have had to work as a team to move a patient safely—to spend more time on other cases.

The origins of the device, and the relationship that brought it to life, were appropriately clinical. As a Gorbel employee’s daughter was receiving physical therapy, the employee asked Gorbel if a crane could be used to lift people. 

While pondering that question, company leaders learned of Mowder-Tinney, and a local alliance was born, with hardware and software teams querying the clinician for her perspectives on their work. “It was a learning experience for me, too—I had to do my own research to answer some of their questions,” she says. Later, students from her neuromuscular classes traveled to Victor to put the prototype through its paces.

In a continuation of this partnership, the first SafeGait 360˚—valued at $160,000—was installed in November in Nazareth’s Peckham Hall and will be relocated to the new Wellness and Rehabilitation Institute upon that facility’s completion this summer. Meanwhile, Mowder-Tinney is developing a training program to help colleagues and students make best use of the device, while continuing to consult with Gorbel on its patient-focused benefits.

“We’re so excited to continue this partnership with J.J. and Nazareth,” Dolce says, “and explore just how much SafeGait can do to help therapists help patients.”

Erich Van Dussen is a freelance writer in Rochester, New York.

SafeGait 360 demonstration

Physical therapist Rachel Waugh '13G assists a client with the new SafeGait 360˚.