Jack Buitendyk’s fall came swift and harsh. He stepped outside with his dog one chilly April morning and hit a patch of ice.

His feet flew up. His head smashed into the wall. His neck landed on a step with a blow that cracked three vertebrae.

His therapists weren’t sure when, or even if, he would walk again.

But eight days later, Buitendyk was on his feet, maneuvering around the Spectrum Health Inpatient Rehabilitation Center at Blodgett Hospital.

Aiding his slow, tentative first steps was a Rifton Transport and Mobility device, a piece of equipment designed to give patients the support they need to get mobile.

The Tram, recently acquired by the rehab center, has already become the go-to walking aid for people recovering from strokes, spinal cord damage and other injuries, said Linda Rusiecki, DPT, a physical therapist.

The device, which looks like a beefed-up walker, is the creation of a company based in the Catskills region of New York.

It includes features that can be fine-tuned to accommodate weakness in a patient’s legs, trunk or arms.

“That machine put me right on the road,” Buitendyk said. “It was amazing. If you lose your balance, the machine saves you.”

That sense of safety is crucial for patients beset by muscle weakness and neurological challenges. A fall can cause serious injury. And fear of falling can inhibit progress.

“You take out the anxiety. You take out the fear. And you discover you can do a lot more than you thought you could,” Rusiecki said.

‘Enormously helpful’

The Tram came to the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center thanks to a word-of-mouth referral and the generosity of a patient and her support network.

Rusiecki’s team heard about the device from a physical therapy assistant who uses it with patients at Spectrum Health’s Rehab and Nursing Center. He was so enthusiastic that her supervisor contacted Rifton Equipment and asked if the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center could try the Tram for a month. If it worked well, they hoped to raise funds through the Spectrum Health Foundation to buy one.

My dad always said to help others.

Janette Tazzia
Stroke survivor

One of the first patients to use the Tram at the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center was Janette Tazzia, a 60-year-old landscaper recovering from a stroke that paralyzed her left arm and leg.

“I was just like a rubber band, like a wet noodle,” she said.

At first, she used a Biodex system to relearn how to walk. The system includes a harness that supports patients as they walk on a treadmill. A physical therapist picked up and moved her left foot with each step until her body relearned the motion.

Then, Rusiecki had Tazzia try the Rifton Tram.

Tazzia took to it immediately. She liked being able to walk where she wanted throughout the gym and the halls of the rehab center. A sling between her legs provided support and prevented falls until she was able to bear her own weight.

Rusiecki marveled at how quickly Tazzia progressed. Within a month, she walked on her own―without even a walker or cane.

“It was enormously helpful,” Tazzia said. “It made a huge difference in my progress.”

Knowing the Tram was on loan, she decided to make sure it would become a permanent item in the rehab toolbox.

“My dad always said to help others,” she said.

She and her partner of 22 years, Jaye Van Lenten, worked with Spectrum Health Foundation to raise the $5,000 needed to buy the Tram for the center. They shared a fundraising request online with their family and friends, and donations poured in. They raised more than $9,000, funding other equipment for the center.

The swift response and the generous gift stunned Rusiecki.

“I just feel so blessed they did that,” she said. “I think it’s amazing that we can do better for our patients.”

First steps

For Buitendyk, a 77-year-old insurance agent, the Rifton Tram gave the support he needed as he coped with the impact of three broken vertebrae in his neck. He went into spinal shock and experienced “pretty severe paralysis” in all four limbs, Rusiecki said.

His prognosis was uncertain when he came to the rehab center. He might remain quadriplegic for life. He might regain complete function. Or he might end up somewhere in between.

His legs responded first. And the Tram became the means to get him up on his feet. From a wheelchair, he hooked into the Tram, and a power mechanism slowly pulled him to a standing position.

With support through the elbow and shoulders, patients feel “joint approximation,” Rusiecki said.

“They feel pressure in the joint and get sensory feedback,” she said. “The arm is able to start waking up and getting some of that sensation back.”

Buitendyk took his first steps with the device April 17, walking across a room for the first time since his fall. Ten days later, he switched to a walker, stronger now in his arms and legs.

“At the time (the Tram) was absolutely essential,” he said. “I don’t think it would have happened that quickly without it.”

Tram dancing

The Tram arrived on the market four years ago, created by a manufacturer that specializes in medical equipment for children with developmental disabilities. Several years ago, the staff saw a need for a device that would help clients as they grow to adult size, said Clare Stober, a Rifton marketing representative.

You take a resourceful and innovative therapist and combine that with an innovative piece of equipment, and they are doing things with the Tram we had not thought of.

Clare Stober
Rifton Equipment

“We needed a way to get them upright and walking on a regular basis, and it had to be with less than three people (assisting them),” she said.

The design team took an older product, called a lift walker, and reworked it into a sleeker, more nimble device. They field-tested prototypes with clients before introducing the Rifton Tram to the market in 2012.

In 2013, it won a gold medal in the Medical Device Design and Excellence Awards.

The company has found the Tram going beyond its initial intent, helping patients with strokes and spinal cord injuries, as well as developmental disabilities. Stober heard of a patient who used it to dance.

“You take a resourceful and innovative therapist and combine that with an innovative piece of equipment, and they are doing things with the Tram we had not thought of,” she said.

‘Real-world applicability’

A Prince song played on a smartphone as Tom Norman walked on a treadmill, supported by a harness. Rusiecki sat on a stool by his side, picking up his left foot and moving it through each step.

Norman, a 60-year-old systems analyst for Grand Valley State University, had suffered a stroke two weeks earlier that paralyzed his left side. Although he was making progress on the treadmill, the harness system felt uncomfortable. Pressure on his chest made it difficult to breathe.

Rusiecki decided to have him try the Tram. Although he still needed help moving his left foot, Norman found walking and breathing easier in the low-profile system.

“I think it’s great,” he said, as he walked out of the gym and down the hall.

A couple of days later, he walked 800 feet. The next day, 1,300.

In his room, surrounded by flowers and balloons, and visiting with a longtime friend, Sally McDonnel, Norman said he felt optimistic about his progress.

Being able to get up and move where he wanted made a big difference. It felt more like “real-world” experience.

“I’m all about real-world applicability,” he said.  “This does that very much.”