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At ease behind the wheel

Driver rehabilitation program helps driver overcome disability
Debbie Opp is now at ease driving thanks to Medcenter One's driver rehabilitation program
Debbie Opp's prosthetic leg once made driving nearly impossible. Today, thanks to a driver rehabilitation program offered by Sanford Health, Opp, right is able to drive her own car with ease thanks to therapy provided by Sanford Health's Kori Erikson, left.
  Born with a short right femur (thigh bone), Debbie Opp found it difficult to ride a bike as a youngster.

“Instead of bikes, I rode scooters,” the 1997 Hazelton High School graduate said. “My leg never grew, but it was better in a small town because everybody knew you. Everybody knew I was born with it.”

When it came time to learn to drive a car, Opp encountered new problems after being fit with a prosthetic leg, one that doesn’t bend at the knee.

Still, she was able to pass her driving test at age 18. She simply placed her right leg and prosthetic on the passenger side and used her left foot for both the gas pedal and brakes.

Today, 13 years later and living in Bismarck, she’s still driving, albeit with much more ease than as a teenager. This is due in no small part to some modification on her vehicle and training with Sanford Health Occupational Therapist Kori Erikson, a certified driver rehabilitation specialist (CDRS) at Sanford Health Rehabilitation Center’s driving program, which was the first of its kind in North Dakota.

Opp faced a new challenge when she upgraded from a Dodge Spirit to a 2004 Ford Escape, her first SUV.

“It didn’t have a console, but it had a hump in the middle, so I actually had to stretch my leg over the hump and it stayed on

the passenger side when I drove,” she said of her early driving years with her unbending prosthetic leg, making it more difficult to fit into a vehicle with a center console.

That grew tiresome, and she was faced with amputation as an option to overcome her driving obstacle.

“Amputation was the only way for me to get a bending leg,” she said. “But I wasn’t going to do that just to drive. I’ve gotten by so far with this leg, so I don’t see any reason to change it yet.”

That proved to be a good choice for Opp, who is employed by the North Dakota Department of Transportation. She was referred to the Sanford Health Rehabilitation, and Erikson performed a three-hour evaluation last September. That was followed by two 90-minute training sessions.

“She was improperly fitted with some adaptive equipment, and she was having difficulties,” Erikson said.

Some work on the SUV followed. It involved moving the gas pedal from the right side to the left of the brake pedal. “This allowed for more leg room for her prosthetic leg on the right side of the brake, and she operates the gas and brake pedals with her lower left leg,” Erikson said. “She also sits and operates the vehicle in a more ergonomically
correct position.”

That made things considerably more accommodating for Opp.

After completing the course, Opp was required by state law to retake her driving test.

  Kor Erikson, Occupational Therapist
Kori Erikson
Occupational therapist

No problem.

“She passed on the first attempt,” said a proud Erikson, who has been involved in the driving program for 13 years.

“We practiced in all types of traffic, including highway and interstate driving,” Erikson added. “We worked on parallel parking and defensive driving skills. She was a very quick learner.”

At the Sanford Health Rehabilitation, Erikson works with Char DeMaria, who has been in the program for 15 years and also is a CDRS. Sanford Health’s is the first program in the state to have CDRS personnel. Erikson said diagnoses that may warrant a driving evaluation include: traumatic brain injury, amputation, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury and stroke.

General guidelines to determine when professional assessment is necessary include: physical limitations that may require adaptive driving equipment; cognitive impairment that may cause problems in identifying driving hazards, predicting solutions and deciding on an appropriate response; visual impairments; delayed reaction time and apprehension about an individual’s driving ability.

“Typically the largest patient population we see are individuals who have sustained strokes,” Erikson said.

Click here for more information on Sanford Health’s driver rehabilitation program, or call
(701) 323-6153.


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