Having built a successful career in investment, Albert Critchley, known as Peter, was enjoying his retirement.

He lived an active lifestyle, spending his time swimming, shopping and meeting friends in London once a week to catch up over a couple of pints of beer.

Peter, 87, also split his time between Norbury and Melbourne, chasing the warm weather and visiting family with his Australian wife Beth.

But in July, while sweeping outside his home on Bigginwood Road in Norbury Peter fell over, unable to get back up. He had suffered a stroke.

At that moment, a passing runner found Peter and called for his next door neighbour. An ambulance quickly arrived which took him straight to the specialist stroke unit at St George’s Hospital in Tooting.

After receiving initial treatment Peter was relocated to Croydon University Hospital.

“It was such a surprise. One moment you’re okay and the next you’re not,” he recalled.

“There was no actual pain from the stroke itself, but I couldn’t move my limbs. The hardest part to adjust to was not being able to walk, I couldn’t even stand up”.

Six weeks later, Peter will finally be discharged from hospital on Tuesday. Now able to stand again, he is slowly regaining the movement of his left arm.

Virtual reality as part of recovery

A stroke is a life-changing condition which commonly affects one side of the brain and movement for the opposite side of the body.

For Peter it was the left side of his body which had been affected.

“I couldn’t raise my left arm before and now I can just about get my arm up and move it,” he said while slowly raising his hand to lean on the table in front of him.

Peter has undergone virtual rehabilitation as part of his six-week recovery.

The revolutionary treatment, the first of its kind to be used by a London NHS Trust, comprises of a computer screen where an image of the patient’s arm is captured using light sensors.

Twice a week Peter plays virtual games such as Fruit Ninja to improve his upper-limb movement.

By moving his arm, he is able to see how it moves on the screen and is given a score at the end of each game.

Benefits of Fruit Ninja

The majority of patients who undertake virtual rehabilitation see an improvement in their score. Experts at Croydon University Hospital believe this means that virtual reality has promising early results to suggest that it helps to speed up recovery for stroke patients.

At first Peter admits he was slightly gobsmacked at the thought of using virtual reality.

“I thought, ‘I wonder what that means?’ I had no idea what it was, but as soon as I was introduced to it I thought it was a very good idea,” he said.

The on-going study, led by Consultant Stroke Physician Dr Karen Kee, has increased the time patients spend doing rehabilitation and is believed to have a number of benefits.

It has been particularly helpful in realigning patients who have a phenomena called ‘neglect’ which is a deficit of awareness in one side of the field of vision.

Experts have found only a handful of techniques which improve patients’ spatial awareness to date, but virtual reality could provide a breakthrough.

Building confidence

While Peter does not show signs of significant left-side neglect, he continues to make strides in the programme. Not only has he built his upper-limb strength, but he is also building his confidence.

“You get scores as to how quickly you slice through the fruits. It absolutely gives me confidence that I’m progressing,” he continued.

“There’s going to be a time when my arm movement becomes normal”.

The sentiment is echoed by Dr Kee who added: “Confidence stems from the fact that you see a score.

“You can say, ‘you took two minutes to reach the target only two weeks ago but now it only takes you 30 seconds’.

“It gives people an objective and is a concrete way of saying you are getting better.”

Complementing traditional methods

As part of their recovery, patients are set tasks such as getting dressed, making a cup of tea and daily activities which are made more difficult after having a stroke. But now it is believed that virtual reality can aid traditional rehabilitation methods.

Dr Kee continued: “Standing is quite a challenge after a stroke.

“But now physiotherapists want patients who are able to, to stand while playing the game.

“So rather than just standing for half an hour, which can be quite boring, they can play a game. Patients don’t even realise they are standing because they are busy concentrating”.

The future looks bright

For Peter, who is determined to walk again, the future looks bright.

Last Friday he married his partner Beth, whom he has known for 50 years, at Croydon Town Hall.

“I didn’t quite walk down the aisle but there was a special room in the Town Hall. It was done up beautifully there and then we went to the pub next door afterwards for some light refreshments, ” he chuckled.

He is now considering the possibility of emigrating to Australia, although must wait for the hospital’s advice on whether he is well enough to make the 24-hour trip.

Similarly, things are looking bright for the possibility of more widespread use of virtual reality for stroke treatment and Dr Kee hopes that one day it will become an NHS standard.

Her team are exploring ways in which the technology can be used 24/7, especially during the weekend and by patients at home.

“One of the things that we are trying to look at is whether there is a possibility that we can use this virtual rehabilitation at weekends.

“We are even exploring whether patient’s relatives could help and are looking at ways of using it at home.

“The technology is limitless”.