The Children's Institute Blog

National PT Month: Ellen and the UEU

Posted: Oct 03, 2017 by The Children's Institute

Physical therapist Ellen Kaminiski, whose work we are profiling today for National Physical Therapy Month, strapped eight bungee cords around two-year-old Caleb Naugle. They were inside the Universal Exercise Unit, or UEU, a giant metal frame about eight feet squared and 200 pounds, when the therapy began at The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh’s Wexford satellite.

“I’ll get it,” said Caleb – who has cerebral palsy – as he stretched the cords to reach for a piece of foam fruit in the grating of the cube.

“I need to work on his quad strength so we’re doing lunges,” Ellen said. “It’s just a very creative way of getting him to strengthen.”

Caleb is learning to walk, with all of the complexities that brings. UEU is teaching him how to do it right.

“A typical kid, when they’re learning to walk, 1,000 times they’ll fall, up and down, up and down,” Ellen said. “A lot of our kids never fall; we catch them. They don’t know the feeling. Caleb used to get very tearful when he’d fall. A lot of kids don’t contract the muscles quickly enough to walk, run, jump – gross motor skills, really.”

The UEU, which The Children’s Institute stocks at its Squirrel Hill campus and most of its satellites, is fully customizable, meaning therapists can use a seemingly unlimited combination of cords, weights, bands and pulleys to isolate muscles in their patients’ bodies to exercise. From training young toddlers to sit or walk to rehabilitating older kids who need to work on upper-body strength, the UEU is highly versatile.

“Up on your tip-toes, fly him over – Vroom-PEW! Back on your knees. Nice Job,” Ellen said as Caleb worked on jumping in a weightless space – assisted by rubber chickens, of course.

The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh is the only facility in Western Pennsylvania known to stock and be trained officially in the UEU, Ellen said. The nearest? Cleveland. Two decades ago, though, children looking to exercise in a UEU had to trek to Europe.

“In Poland and a good part of Europe, the UEU’s a very prominent piece of equipment – it’s like a treadmill to us,” Ellen said. “Even the poorest of facilities have one of these.”

Ellen trained in the UEU about 10 years ago with a prominent advocate of the equipment, Polish therapist Izabela Koscielny, who came to America to practice.

“She came to a clinic and was, like, ‘Where’s your exercise unit?!’” Ellen said. “So they started bringing them over from Poland.”

For the past three weeks, five days a week, Ashley Ohler has trekked nearly two hours each way from Shanksville to Wexford for intensive therapy for her son, Gabriel, 3, who has spinal bifida. The UEU is getting him to work muscles in his legs.

“He’s definitely gotten a lot stronger from it. I think all of the therapists here have done an amazing job getting him engaged,” said Ashley, as Gabriel swung his weighted legs on a table in the UEU. “His doctors told us before he was born he’d never walk. They told us before we had him that he’d have very poor outcomes. He does more than they expected.”

And what does Gabriel’s brother – Bryson, 4, who urged him to kick plastic bowling pins off the table during therapy – think of the UEU?

“It’s far out,” Bryson said.

“And you’ve gotta drive a long ways to get here,” Ellen said.

And without a pause, Ashley replied.

“It’s worth it.”

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