Vicki Traylor’s journey began on Jan. 5 of this year, with a terrible fall down a flight of stairs that left her with a concussion and her leg broken in several places.

She faced multiple surgeries and spent four weeks in an external fixator with pins holding her shattered leg together.

Tethered to a walker for months, Traylor underwent weekly rehabilitation at UTMB.

For an active grandmother with 15 grandkids and another on the way, being incapacitated was heartbreaking. “My 6 year-old grandson Clayton asked, ‘Are you ever going to be able to walk with me on the beach again?’” said Traylor, 58. “I immediately put the walker aside and became determined to walk normally again.”

UTMB physical therapist Jeanne Smith had a plan to help her recover more quickly. “The AlterG anti-gravity treadmill is an amazing tool for rehabilitating lower extremity injury,” she said. The treadmill allowed Traylor the freedom to walk again comfortably by “unloading” about 50 percent of her weight.

The instant Traylor began walking on the anti-gravity treadmill, she felt liberated. “I felt like I was finally normal again, doing something on my own,” she said.

To use the AlterG, patients wear specially designed neoprene shorts and are zipped into a pressure-controlled chamber on the treadmill. Once activated, the chamber fills up with air, supporting the patient’s body and reducing the amount of weight felt. Users can walk, run and practice other weight-bearing movement in a reduced-gravity environment.

The degree of lift is based on recommendations by the UTMB physical therapists and referring physicians. Users can feel 20 percent to 100 percent of their body weight and can gradually increase the amount they offload. For example, a 150-pound person at 20 percent anti-gravity factor would effectively weigh only 30 pounds on the AlterG. The treadmill also has an adjustable incline and allows the physical therapists to view a patient’s gait from any angle.

UTMB’s AlterG also has a TV monitor that shows the patient their own gait, via three strategically placed cameras, thereby allowing the patient to correct any unevenness in his or her gait.

Anti-gravity treadmills are also used by high-level athletes during physical therapy from a sports-related injury or surgery. “It enables athletes to get back in the game faster and to keep conditioning without losing their running base or endurance,” said Smith.

Trish Wooten, a UTMB employee, was determined to run her first Houston marathon. She was training hard when she developed a partial tear and severe strain in her right calf just seven weeks before the marathon. Devastated, she began rehab at UTMB, and her physical therapist, Lisa Miller, suggested she try the anti-gravity treadmill.

For Wooten, it was an emotional experience. “I cried. I didn’t think I would be able to run again for a long time,” she said. “But when I got in it, at 70 percent of my body weight, I felt like I was floating.”

She could see on the monitor that she was compensating for her injury on one side. She worked hard to correct it, all the while running pain-free. “I felt like I was in control of my recovery and became stronger even though I was injured,” she said.

Wooten ran the Houston marathon this past January and another in February where she placed first in her age group. “I know I couldn’t have done it without the AlterG and the amazing therapists at UTMB,” she said.

According to Smith, anyone who could benefit from off-loading weight may use the treadmill: post-op patients, those with herniated discs, lower back pain, athletes, runners, even those with neurological conditions.

Parkinson’s patients, for example, often have difficulty with step length. “On the AlterG, a patient with Parkinson’s can see on the monitor that his or her steps are too short and can correct to a more normal gait,” explained Smith. “The repetition helps improve their walking patterns, which in turn decreases their fall risk.”

Today, Traylor continues her weekly AlterG sessions and is looking forward to walking the beach with her grandkids. Wooten has since run another marathon. For both of them, the road to recovery began by defying gravity.