Mary Free Bed focuses on maximizing human ability


Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital celebrated the opening of the Bernadine Keller and Barbara Hoffius Center, marking completion of the second phase of its $66.4 million expansion. Courtesy Mary Free Bed

Miracles happen inside the four walls of Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital.

During the reopening of Mary Free Bed in downtown Grand Rapids, following the completion of Phase 2 of its $66.4 million expansion and renovation project, Mary Free Bed President and CEO Kent Riddle shared stories of two young patients, Sasha and Josie, each of whom accomplished feats neither was sure was possible.

Sasha, a pre-teen Cedar Rapids resident, who originally is from the Ukraine, regained the ability to stand this summer and managed to walk 500 feet, following 12 weeks of intensive therapy at Mary Free Bed.

And Josie, a 14-year-old born in Guatemala as a head-conjoined twin who has spent her entire life in a wheelchair since being separated from her sister, walked to the podium at her eighth grade graduation using only a Mary Free Bed orthesis, something she previously considered “a wild dream.”

Both girls came to West Michigan specifically to receive care at Mary Free Bed based on the hospital’s growing reputation as a leader in rehabilitation across the country.

“We are seeing many more patients coming from around the country and even internationally,” Riddle said. “We’ve seen significant growth in the patients seeking us out.”

Riddle said over the past year, Mary Free Bed has seen patients from nearly every county in Michigan and as far away as Iraq and Abu Dhabi.

“They have been referred by Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic and beyond,” he said.

Riddle said Mary Free Bed is committed to helping patients achieve hope and freedom, and the hospital’s recent transformation, physically and strategically, will help it achieve even greater feats of rehabilitation.

For instance, Riddle said the hospital is embracing robotic technology that is changing possibilities for patients like never before.

“For example, around Jan. 1, we will have the first, in the state, wearable robotics for patients with complete spinal cord injuries, who will be able to walk in this wearable robotics,” Riddle said.

He said Mary Free Bed and the University of Michigan are the only organizations in the state using bionics in Michigan.

The hospital uses computer knees and robotic hands, for instance, to help patients regain or achieve greater physical freedom for the first time.

“What is most exciting is with our robotic hands, for instance, a patient only needs to think and then they can move the hand or fingers,” Riddle said. “It’s tying the brain to the prosthetic device or orthotic device.”

Mary Free Bed also is committed to becoming a research leader in the field of rehabilitation.

The hospital formalized its research work when it formed the John F. Butzer Center for Research & Innovation in conjunction with Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in 2014. Butzer served as Mary Free Bed’s chief medical officer for 29 years and now leads the endeavor. In addition, he was named director of the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine’s Division of Rehabilitation Medicine.

According to its website, “Twenty ongoing research projects are currently embedded at Mary Free Bed, involving 34 active researchers and 15 hospital service lines.”

The hospital also is working with 16 institutions, such as the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, on collaborations.

“We are trying to find cures through research,” Riddle said.

Specifically, Riddle said Mary Free Bed has identified gap areas in rehabilitation research and is attempting to fill in the gaps.

“We call it outcomes research, and it’s to prove what works and what doesn’t,” he said.

While Mary Free Bed’s location at 235 Wealthy St. SE remains the “mothership,” the organization has expanded to nine communities over the past several years, and Riddle projects it will be in at least nine more in another five years.

“We are becoming a statewide rehabilitation provider — even beyond the state,” Riddle said. “For certain conditions, it’s really best to keep patients close to their communities. That is why we have a system of inpatient and outpatient facilities across the state now.”

Tens of thousands of patients visit Mary Free Bed each year, with conditions such as as birth malformations, traumas, chronic pain, post-surgical complications, debilitating diseases and injuries sustained in accidents.

Mary Free Bed also is one of few organizations with a thriving pediatrics program.

“Pediatric programs across the country are dropping, primarily because it is underfunded and you have to subsidize kids programs,” Riddle said. “We are actually growing ours.”

Riddle said watching Mary Free Bed transform from the 39th largest independent rehabilitation hospital in the country to the fifth largest has been “breathtaking.”

The hospital continues to earn first place on numerous lists, including for its patient outcomes and satisfaction and value, which drive more patients to Mary Free Bed.

“Patients do better here than they do anywhere else,” Riddle said, referring to data released by the American Hospital Association on patient satisfaction and outcomes.

He said MFB was ranked first in the “measured functional gains” patients achieve while under its care and first in value when comparing “the ratio of those gains over the cost of care.”

The hospital also was ranked first in the percentage of patients who leave the hospital and are able to return home to live.

“Our costs are low, and we are getting these great outcomes,” Riddle said. “That means a lot more patients will be coming and are coming.”

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