TAMPA — After a 2007 helicopter crash in Italy left Army Sgt. Mark Lalli's brain and body damaged, the road to recovery took him to an unexpected place.
A cyber bowling alley.
The James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa finds itself at the vanguard of a therapeutic revolution at the Department of Veterans Affairs, using a popular video game to bring veterans back from the brink.
One recent day at Haley, Lalli faced a wide-screen television hooked up to a Nintendo Wii (pronounced WE) game system.
Using a motion-sensitive controller in one hand, the 23-year-old swung his arm as if rolling a bowling ball while standing with help from a therapist. On the screen, a ball flew down the alley, clearing pins with all the sound-effects of reality. A spare.
"This," a smiling Lalli said, "is a blast."
Therapists say Wii, a video game system released in November 2006, is a way to engage a new generation of soldiers with rehabilitation therapy that is both enjoyable and useful.
"We're looking at a younger generation now," said Haley recreational therapist Jamie Kaplan. "This is not your father's Army that came back from World War II and was satisfied doing model projects and craft projects and playing bingo. This new generation is more adventurous."
Most of the VA's hospitals now use the $250 game system as part of their rehabilitation program, joining others in the private sector who use Wii for bodies that can't withstand high-intensity workouts.
The games are not yet used at Bay Pines in St. Petersburg.
The game system has big friends in government. President Obama bought the game system for his two daughters this Christmas. And Obama himself likes Wii bowling.
"He says he bowls on Wii better than in real life," said Rob Wheat, a spokesman for Nintendo.
For Lalli, who before joining the Army played guitar and enjoyed rock climbing, the game system is a way to relearn skills that can be translated to the real thing.
The helicopter crash nearly killed him. He broke several vertebra, fractured his skull and damaged his brain, among numerous injuries. Six other crewmen died.
But now, the fact that he often uses a wheelchair while relearning motor and cognitive skills is hardly an impediment.
The day before he heads out with recreation therapists at Haley for a game of real golf using a specialized cart to navigate the course, Lalli joins Kaplan for a Wii golf game.
"We're utilizing this as a basis to get them to the next level," Kaplan said. "We want to get them off the couch or out of the wheelchair and out in the community playing sports again and doing the things they love."
The game helps patients with everything from balance to hand-eye coordination to the tricky thinking skills required to play a game that others may take for granted, Kaplan said.
Other games available for veterans include boxing, baseball and tennis.
Wii also has a guitar program that Lalli enjoys.
Right now, Haley uses 10 Wii systems and has expanded use of the gaming system throughout the facility, from its nursing home to patients in the acute care polytrauma center.
Haley therapists are finding it is not just the younger set that enjoys the games. Bowling is especially popular with elderly veterans.
"Each generation has its own favorite recreation," said Cathy Williams, Haley's recreation therapy chief. "In the 1950s and '60s, people bowled. People in their 70 and 80s now were once in bowling leagues.
"Now they may have torn rotators, bad backs, arthritis. Well guess what? They can bowl again."
Williams said Haley is considering creating a competitive Wii bowling league. And with an Internet connection, patients at hospitals thousands of miles apart could compete, she said.
"It gets very competitive," Williams said. "The patients will even talk smack."
Said Kaplan, "You begin to see the dynamic personality that they once were."
But like real sports, Wii can have unintended consequences. In a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Julio Bonis said last year that he developed acute tendonitis after spending several hours playing Wii tennis.
He quickly recovered, though Bonis warned doctors to be aware of Wii overuse.
But for patients like Lalli, undergoing a sometimes painful and grueling rehabilitation regimen, Wii is a fun and invigorating way to recovery.
The Cleveland resident might be home within several months, and he said Wii may be his ticket onto the real golf courses and tennis courts of his hometown.
Lalli, whose goal is to walk again without assistance, already hopes to be scuba certified through Haley's recreational therapy program. Wii won't play a part in that. "I want to do all the things I did before," Lalli said.
William R. Levesque can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813)269-5306