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'Divine intervention,' Cable Guy's gift bolster Madonna facility

'Divine intervention,' Cable Guy's gift bolster Madonna facility

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Six Swedes dumbly eye a $275,000 Lokomat, one of only a dozen pediatric robotic gait devices in the U.S. and a signature feature of the new Alexis Verzal Children's Rehabilitation Hospital at Madonna in Lincoln.

Made in Sweden, the device will hasten the recoveries of children with brain and spinal injuries, using computers to adjust muscle assistance.

But Tuesday, it rested heavily, facing backward and almost inviting a Larry the Cable Guy-style wisecrack.

Larry, aka Nebraska-born comic Dan Whitney, made a $1.2 million anchor donation last Christmas to lock the new hospital's construction into high gear.

In March, a Bobcat ripped through the halls of Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital's former subacute care center, clearing a space that had been used by geriatrics.

The first patients moved into the 14-bed pediatric rehabilitation hospital July 12.

Work continues on a domed courtyard playground. A formal dedication will be in late August.

Commenting on events leading to construction and the rapid progress, Madonna CEO Marsha Lommel called it "divine intervention."

"Pathways," a documentary featuring Alexis Verzal, debuted in October, winning the heart of Whitney's wife, Cara.

Two years ago, Alexis, then 13 months, was injured at a Texas day care, leading an area of her brain involved in vision to dissolve.

The documentary showed Madonna therapists using prism glasses to trick another part of her young brain into rewiring.

It restored Alexis' vision by 98 percent, Lommel said Tuesday.

That's the kind of sophistication Madonna's rehabilitation hospital dedicated to treating patients 3 months to 18 years will embody, she said.

The Whitneys chose to name the hospital after the charismatic girl who inspired their gift.

Plans had been drawn beforehand.

"We knew we had to do something," said Karen Divito, director of rehabilitation.

Madonna opened its pediatric rehabilitation wing in 2007 with an average daily census of two. By the end of 2009, the count was nine.

That fit with Lommel's plan to make Madonna a nationally known center for pediatric rehabilitation.

For the past five years, she said, rehabilitation services have been under siege from Medicare, which no longer pays for rehabilitation after broken hips and replaced knees.

"We lost 40 percent of Medicare patients due to Medicare changes," she said.

"Our response has been to expand our region," carving out sophisticated services in pediatric rehabilitation, something few others were attempting.

"I can't imagine our health care system denying children pediatric rehabilitation," Lommel said.

The new hospital is one of a handful in the country accredited in pediatric rehabilitation for brain and spinal injury, she said.

"So our children come from all over."

In addition to the Lokomat and the domed playground, the children's hospital features a six-sided glass-enclosed playroom decorated with a blue mural depicting an underwater shipwreck.

There's a large gym, refurbished patient rooms, an area given over to sensory perception and reawakening senses, a teen play and study area and a family room.

Family and community are important parts of rehabilitation, said Madonna spokeswoman Molly Nance. Patient families often lead newcomers along the paths of hope.

Karen Keenan of Storm Lake, Iowa, recently moved her 4-year-old son, Owen, from the old Madonna wing to the new hospital.

On Easter Sunday, Owen was playing with other children in a driveway when he sat on a cousin's skateboard and rolled into the path of a car.

He arrived at Madonna still comatose three weeks later.

Owen first said "Mom" again on Mother's Day and he was able to take three steps last Friday.

"That's really what I'd hoped for," his mother said.

He'll be discharged to outpatient care on Friday.

Compared with the old pediatric wing, the new hospital is "more kid-driven," Karen Keenan said.

"Kids are more comfortable, and the parents are more comfortable."

Both come out of their rooms more often to play.

"The kids weren't as comfortable interacting with adults who have had brain injuries," she said.

"(Now,) we're hardly even in his room."

Reach Mark Andersen at 402-473-7238 or


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