An international superstar wowed the crowd at NRH in February, without saying a single word. The GEICO Gecko, the world’s most popular lizard, headlined the kickoff event for the new demonstration automobile in the hospital’s Independence Square, a unique, expansive therapy space where patients and their families test their daily living skills. The extraordinary effort to modify and install the new demonstration car was spearheaded by NRH’s long-standing supporter, the GEICO Foundation.
The Gecko was joined by GEICO Senior Vice President Don Lyons; John Geer, GEICO Vice President and NRH board member; Rachel Veness, GEICO Public Relations; and GEICO’s Todd Snook, whose project team located, modified and installed the 2003 Ford Mercury, which is a critical tool used to help patients regain independence.
“The previous car had served us well for ten years, but it was at the end of its useful life. We needed an updated car with today’s design advantages, and GEICO very generously offered to take on the entire project,” says NRH President and CEO Edward Eckenhoff.
In the nearly year-long transformation, the Mercury Sable was stripped of all dangerous components, modified to fit into the desired space, outfitted with the full range of adaptive equipment, and wrapped in a colorful display of the well-known lizard’s smiling face. Then, in a feat of engineering genius, the two-ton car was brought through the doors of NRH and into Independence Square, where dozens of staff and patients celebrated its arrival.
“It’s an honor for GEICO to be able to support the National Rehabilitation Hospital in its mission to serve the community through quality patient care, rehabilitation research, education and training, assistive technology and advocacy,” Don Lyons told the crowd who gathered at the celebration. “Thank you for your dedication and hard work on behalf of injured men and women. Your patient care truly is ‘adding life to years.’”
The demonstration car is an important part of nearly every patient’s rehabilitation. Using a car is a fundamental activity of daily life, and it’s one of the first challenges patients face when they leave the hospital. Learning how to transfer in and out of a car is just one of the many real life activities patients practice in the hospital’s Independence Square. The car is also an important component of the hospital’s Driver Training Program, which has been sponsored by GEICO for more than 20 years.
Since 1987, the National Rehabilitation Hospital’s Driver Training Program has been teaching drivers with mobility, cognitive or visual impairments how to drive with adaptive equipment or adaptive strategies. More than 1000 people have received driver training at NRH, which is the only fully accessible driving program in the Metropolitan Washington Area.
The demonstration car provides a comfortable and effective evaluation setting for clients hoping to regain their driving capabilities. It helps to test reaction time and assess the kinds of controls best suited to client’s needs. After this initial evaluation, clients will train in one of two fully accessible, customized vehicles by an NRH’s certified driver trainers. When they complete their training, they receive a prescription for the adaptive equipment that meets their individual needs. Then an adaptive vehicle modifier can install the specialized equipment they require — anything from assistive devices on steering wheels for people who have suffered strokes to lift ramps for wheelchairs users who require highly technical adaptations.
“Because of GEICO’s generous underwriting of the program, we have been able to make driver training much more affordable,” says NRH President and CEO Edward Eckenhoff. “GEICO has truly been an outstanding partner that has made a tremendous commitment the disabled community by helping to keep this critical program thriving. With their help we will be able to replace our vehicles with updated models when needed and add administrative staff to help improve efficiency,” he says.
“There is a growing need for driving training in the region, and we are the only facility that can offer people with disabilities this important, fully-accessible service. We are giving them a real opportunity for independence, and that’s what NRH really is all about,” Eckenhoff adds.