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Machine for therapy pitching for a new team

THE BALTIMORE SUN

So far this off-season the Orioles have acquired four high-priced free agents and one high-tech physical-therapy machine. Only the latter qualifies as a rookie in terms of Major League baseball experience.

"I'm not an easy sell," head trainer Richie Bancells says of his decision to give the $50,000 BTE Primus a training-room tryout. "In my position I see a hundred things come down the pike every day, and this has really caught my eye."

Think of Primus as the Swiss Army knife of rehab equipment. It can reproduce virtually any motion, from plucking a chicken to swinging a baseball bat. The Primus system made its reputation in hospital settings, where for years different incarnations of the machine have been used to treat muscular-skeletal injuries.

That conventional-medicine success has now pricked the curiosity of the Orioles and several other sports teams, including baseball's

Texas Rangers and hockey's Dallas Stars.

"What we're doing is kind of research and development stuff to see how it applies to athletes," explains Bancells, who most immediately intends to use Primus for collecting baseline data on the arm-shoulder strength and flexibility of Orioles pitchers.

Chuck Wetherington, chief executive officer of BTE Technologies -- which makes Primus and has its corporate headquarters in Hanover, Md. -- couldn't be happier to have the Orioles as a client.

"We're trying to bust into a new market," says Wetherington, who sees untapped potential in the sports world. "We're a company that has always been known as an occupational-therapy and hand-therapy company."

Born in Baltimore

There's just cause for that perception. After all, BTE figuratively was born at Baltimore's Union Memorial Hospital.

In the late 1970s, Dr. Raymond Curtis (a surgeon whom the hospital later honored by establishing its renowned Curtis National Hand Center), hit upon the idea of developing a hand-therapy device that would require patients to perform specific, everyday movements. Curtis and an inventor friend hooked up with a private investor to form what was then called Baltimore Therapeutic Equipment Co., or BTE.

The first machine produced in 1979 is on permanent display at Union Memorial. It looks like a junk dealer's attempt to create postmodern sculpture. The base is an old barber's chair, upon which has been mounted what looks like the body of a jumbo drill that can accommodate all sorts of oddball attachments: screwdriver, grass clippers and more.

Over time, that original makeshift "BTE Simulator" evolved and was dolled up with computerized, motion-measuring components. Eventually, a more sophisticated model that moves in horizontal, vertical and diagonal planes was designed for full-body use: the Primus.

In January, BTE merged with a Canadian competitor and became BTE Technologies Inc. The combined product line consists of six machines, some 4,000 of which are in service around the world, sometimes in unlikely places. The Korean shipbuilding company Daewoo bought a Primus. Why? Daewoo employees are prone to back, arm and shoulder injuries by virtue of working inside the confined crawl spaces of double-hulled cargo ships.

Likewise, Tysons Foods had problems at its Arkansas poultry plant with workers getting repetitive-stress hand injuries from plucking chickens all day long. The company bought a Primus and therapists hooked a chamois cloth onto the end of its flexible cable. Then they had workers pull on that cable again and again in a kind of marathon plucking session. For authenticity's sake, the chamois cloth was soaked in water.

"It's just like chicken skin," explains Wetherington. "Wet and slimy."

Eliminates subjectivity

Part of the appeal of a BTE machine is that it injects hard science into the inexact art of injury rehabilitation. A touch-screen computer generates instantaneous force, speed and power readings. You can find a user's fatigue and maximum-strength thresholds, and precisely track performance over an extended period of time.

"It takes away the subjective kind of measurement," says Wetherington.

A BTE Technologies poster hangs on one wall of the therapy room at the Curtis National Hand Center at Union Memorial. It resembles an enlarged sheet of postage stamps. Eighty tiny photos are arranged in rows and columns, each depicting someone using a BTE machine to mimic a real-life activity: cutting meat, lifting plasterboard, raking leaves, almost everything but tossing pizza.

"The biggest thing from my standpoint is the ease of replication. It's a time saver," says occupational therapist Bob Kahlert. Make a quick height adjustment, swing a mechanical arm into position, unhitch a cable, attach a knob. Suddenly, you've segued from installing imaginary overhead electrical wire to twisting the lid off a jar.

A few feet away from Kahlert, patient Carlos Mendez is seated at a BTE Simulator configured with a steering-wheel attachment. Mendez is a UPS driver whose right knee had to be operated on after he got it caught between his truck and a loading dock.

Patient Terry Lawson, who nearly crushed his left index finger in a fall and underwent subsequent surgery, has hold of the hand grip on a nearby Primus, continuously squeezing and releasing it under 20 pounds of computerized resistance.

"This provides positive reinforcement for the patient," says therapist Michele Klein, referring to the Primus data she's gathering on Lawson, "because they can see if they're getting better."

Orioles as test subjects

It remains to be seen if the same technology can make professional athletes better. BTE's Wetherington envisions a day when next-generation, sports-specific Primus machines are standard equipment at Olympic training centers and university athletic departments; indeed, anywhere "people are breaking down mechanics" and trying to eke out "those last ounces of performance."

That rosy marketing future hinges, in part, on the arms and legs of the 2004 Orioles. The team has its Primus on loan with an option to buy. If the Birds defy expectations and win the World Series, well, Primus machines may start flying out BTE's door.

But that's baseball fantasy speculation done in the dreary dead of winter. Right now, all O's trainer Richie Bancells knows is that his new toy has lots more bells, whistles and therapeutic potential than that collectors-item Simulator on display at Union Memorial.

Says Bancells, "It's like going from the Model A to today's Corvette."

Sun staff writer Larry Bingham contributed to this article.

To learn more

Although BTE's Primus and Simulator machines aren't intended for home use (they range in price from $15,000 to $50,000), you can learn more about them on the company's Web site: www.bteco.com.

A number of regional facilities, among them Johns Hopkins Hospital, St. Agnes Health Care, Maryland General Hospital and Union Memorial Hospital, make use of BTE equipment for occupational and physical therapy.

Union Memorial has an Orthopaedic Referral Service (877-346-7846) for patients in need of a physician. For online information, go to the www.unionmemorial.org home page and click on "Orthopaedic Institute" or "The Curtis National Hand Center."

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