Tuesday, March 14, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Video poker machines are commonplace in Las Vegas and can be found in bars, supermarkets and even high-end restaurants. Now you can add hospitals to that list.
The HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Henderson treats people who are recovering from a number of issues, including traumatic injuries, strokes, amputations, spinal cord issues and neurological disorders.
Against one wall of the facility’s busy 7,400-square foot gym, alongside the weights and exercise machines typically found in physical therapy rooms, sit two video poker machines, one with a chair you’d find in casino and one without.
Because playing video poker is a sedentary activity, video poker machines in a rehab hospital may seem counterintuitive. But therapists at HealthSouth say the games help patients in a number of ways.
Sarah Tempest, an outpatient team leader and speech-language therapist at HealthSouth, said the video games help patients, many of whom require help with both mental and physical acuity, improve their cognitive abilities.
“One of the areas (of the brain) we know is stimulated by gambling is the prefrontal cortex,” Tempest said. “The frontal lobes of the brain can be damaged by traumatic injuries; they can be damaged by substance abuse; they can be damaged by strokes.”
If the brain can be considered an orchestra, Tempest explained, then the frontal lobes act like the conductor. When her patients play the video poker machines, they are retraining that conductor.
“What we’re really looking to improve with the games are executive-functioning skills,” she said. “The things we are really addressing with that are attention, mental flexibility, self-regulation and working memory.”
Because the patients are playing video poker, she explained, they have to be able to retain information and then manipulate it in ways that can help them win. They also have to make different decisions based on the information, and they also get to relearn impulse control.
“They get to think about if it’s worth placing another bet,” Tempest said. “Should they see if they can get a full house or is it better to stay with a pair of kings?”
And while video poker is certainly not the most physically demanding activity, it can also help patients with significant mobility issues.
“Sometimes we’ll have patients stand and play the video poker machines to work on standing tolerance,” said Sandy McGinnis, one of the hospital’s occupational therapists. “We can also have them put wrist weights on, and they’re playing for a whole 15 minutes (a session). It can get you tired after doing it for 15 minutes.”
A bonus? The patients are working on their physical and mental skills while doing something they enjoy, McGinnis said. Tempest said 10-12 patients use the slot machines, which HealthSouth CEO Sam Billig purchased for $1 each in November. The patients don’t need money to use them, and they can’t win money either. The games are set to run 15 minutes at a time, regardless if the “credits” accumulate or dwindle.
“Sometimes, it helps the patients come down to their sessions,” McGinnis said. “They could be in pain or having a bad day and you can tell them, “‘Hey, you know what? We can play video poker as part of your therapy.’ And they are more likely to engage in it instead of refusing because of medical issues that are going on.”
HealthSouth is a 90-bed hospital that, according to its website, “provides care for people who are ready to be discharged from a hospital but not ready to return home.”
It’s why the gym includes a full-size supermarket checkout counter, a machine built to resemble the interior of a car and a replica of a cafe. It’s also why the gym has skee ball, an air hockey table and other activities patients can enjoy while developing cognitive and physical skills.
Angela Ingerson, a special-needs teacher in the hospital who is dealing with several health issues, said the video poker and other activities motivate her to participate in her therapy.
“The things they are doing here, especially with the new games, give me an opportunity for me to do things I enjoy,” she said. “For example, they want me to sit up more. But if all I’m doing sitting in a hospital bed, what’s motivating me to sit up more?”