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Driver rehab: Get back on the road or hang up the keys for good?

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Posted at 12:28 PM, Jul 30, 2015
and last updated 2015-07-30 14:28:54-04

star-sponsored-native  The following article is sponsored by University of Utah Health Care.

When Richard Bizarro was cleared to relearn how to drive a year and a half after his stroke, he was as excited to get behind the wheel as he was at 16 with a brand-new license.

“It was freedom,” said the 73-year-old Park City businessman who owns All Resort Group and Lewis Stages. “It was like having my life back. It was completely new and exciting.”

Bizarro has always been a car buff — he still receives the same automobile magazines he got as a boy — so when a stroke paralyzed the right side of his body in 2013, losing his ability to go for a spin was a particularly difficult blow.

You probably wouldn’t notice the differences in technique if Bizarro was stopped next to you at a red light, but he’s had to change the way he operates his car. He steers using a spinner knob attached to his steering wheel, and his car has been outfitted with a left-foot accelerator.

Marc Rosello, M.S., an occupational therapist at University of Utah Health Care’s Sugar House Rehabilitation Clinic, helps people like Bizarro get back on the road and recommends amendments to their cars that make disabled driving possible.

A certified driver rehabilitation therapist, Rosello sees clients of all ages for all sorts of reasons. He evaluates patients with spinal or brain injuries, seizures, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, spina bifida and other diseases and disorders and determines if individuals can safely drive and if they would benefit from lessons or equipment installed in their vehicles.

When Bizarro arrived at the Sugar House clinic hoping to resume driving, Rosello began with his standard evaluation, checking Bizarro’s vision, reaction time, cognition and motor abilities. Over the course of a month in Rosello’s care, Bizarro spent 10 hours in a driving simulator — making turns, avoiding dogs that ran in front of him, using his new controls. He practiced another five hours during road lessons with Rosello in a vehicle equipped with passenger braking.

“Marc is a wonderful instructor,” Bizarro said. “He doesn’t just tell you what to do, he tells you why.”

The hardest parts of driving, Bizarro said, have been building stamina to be able to sit for more than a short time and to remember to use his left foot. After more than a half century of driving the traditional way, he still has the urge to hit the brakes with his right foot even though he can’t move it.

“It was a little spooky at first,” Bizarro said. “The simulator gave me a lot of experience. Then when Marc took me out it was January, and we’d had a big snowstorm. I got to drive in snow, good weather, rainy weather, and I feel very confident now.”

In addition to working with people who are temporarily sidelined from driving, Rosello frequently assists families who are concerned it may be time for an elderly relative to hang up the keys and use other transportation. It can be a tough subject to broach.

“I try to be an objective third party,” Rosello said. “Sometimes my recommendations will be additional training to improve basic driving skills. Sometimes I’ll recommend driving restrictions such as only driving during the daytime, staying under 40 miles per hour or only driving a 5-mile radius. Unfortunately, sometimes I have to make recommendations for driving retirement.”

Rosello said it’s important to notice clues that loved ones may be struggling on the road. Is their car banged up? Have they lost confidence in their driving skills? Do other drivers frequently honk at them? Are there scrapes on their mailbox or garage? Do they fail to notice traffic signs or have trouble navigating left-hand turns in particular? Do they get confused at exits or lost in familiar places? These are just a few signs that it may be time for an assessment.

Bizarro was happy to get a refresher course. He said he wouldn’t have felt comfortable resuming driving without it.

“Frankly, I feel I’m a better driver than I was before the stroke,” said Bizarro who is doing well health-wise and has graduated from a 4-leg walker to a 2-leg to a cane. “Everybody who has been driving for more than 50 years should get instructions.”

So far, the longest drive he’s taken was a trip to Thanksgiving Point and back home to Park City. He’s got bigger plans though. A long-time Cadillac devotee, Bizarro has his eye on the new Cadillac CT6 with navy blue exterior and tan interior. He plans to continue to work on his stamina, and in January, Bizarro will embark on his first road trip since the stroke: a joyride to L.A. in his dream car with his wife at his side and his left foot on the gas.

Most patients are referred to the program by their physician. For more information about a 2-hour driving evaluation that costs $200 — call 801-581-2221.