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Baby, You Can Drive My Car
Green Spring’s occupational therapists get their patients behind the wheel

John Stuelpnagel and Annette Lavezza gear up for a ride.

In June 2005, John Stuelpnagel awoke from hip replacement surgery with a paralyzed right leg. The retired engineer immediately feared he’d have to give up driving. “If I couldn’t drive,” says Stuelpnagel, who drove a red stick-shift convertible, “my life would be practically over.”   

Enter Annette Lavezza. The nerves-of-steel occupational therapist launched the Johns Hopkins Driving Program at Green Spring Station in 2002. Part of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, it is one of only a handful in the state.

Lavezza believes everyone deserves a chance to prove his or her driving ability. That includes those with spinal cord injuries, strokes, visual problems, amputations and cognitive deficits.

When Stuelpnagel, 70, arrived for an evaluation, Lavezza tested cognitive skills, reflexes and vision. On the next visit, she helped Stuelpnagel get behind the wheel of a 2002 bench-seat Taurus equipped with adaptive devices like hand controls. For Stuelpnagel, what was required was a left-foot accelerator and a block to prevent his impaired right foot from getting in the way. Three lessons later, Stuelpnagel was cruising down the highway. He’d passed every required test.

“From the very beginning,” reports Stuelpnagel, “Annette instilled confidence.” He traded his convertible for a specially equipped Lincoln Town Car. Now he commutes to a consulting job in Alexandria.

The driving program was conceived by Lavezza, a former geriatric psychiatry OT who saw such a need to assess driving among her congnitively impaired patients that she decided to become a certified driving instructor. Now 24 slots are filled in every week, and there are two OTs on staff.

Fifty percent of clients have thinking problems. Those with dementia are retested periodically, and some have to give up their licenses. “I’ve had patients storm out of here,” says Lavezza, “but the families are grateful that they didn’t have to break the news.”

She strives to keep clients on the road for as long as possible so they won’t be homebound and depressed. Sometimes all that’s needed is restricted driving—in the neighborhood and only during the day. Even so, Lavezza’s first priority is to make sure drivers are safe on the road.

Recently, Stuelpnagel was fitted with a lift in his left shoe so his legs would be the same length. Leaving nothing to chance, he called Lavezza. “She’ll tell me if I’m really driving OK.”

Judy Minkove

Info: The Johns Hopkins Driving Program at Green Spring Station, 410-583-2643.



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