Partake in life

Text: editorial staff “ceo” Magazine Magazin | Images: Markus Bertschi | Magazine: Life & Science – July 2017

Hans Peter Gmünder heads the Swiss Paraplegic Centre in Nottwil LU. With a reputation that extends far beyond the bounds of Switzerland, this centre of expertise provides acute medical treatment, rehabilitation and lifelong accompaniment for people with spinal paralysis. Its physicians accord the highest priority to the comprehensive care of people stricken with paraplegia and their return to daily life.

Time proverbially heals all wounds. When patients at the Swiss Paraplegic Centre (SPC) in Nottwil become restless or give way to despair as a result of their paralysis and immobility, it takes the kind of empathy and encouragement that instils in them hope and a can-do attitude. “Give us time,” Hans Peter Gmünder says at that point. As director of this renowned institution situated on the shores of Lake Sempach, where 1,100 clinicians care for people with vertebral and spinal cord injuries, he knows how precious life is and the tremendous value that is placed on the ability to function efficiently within one’s environment.

And indeed, it takes time to get SPC patients back to their daily routine and environs after an accident or severe disease. For Gmünder, the key objective of rehabilitation is not just to restore the physical and psychological viability of the patient, but also to reintegrate that person into social and business life to the greatest extent possible.

“With each other and for each other, not at the expense of others.”

Keeping an eye on the priorities

When asked what he associates with the notion of “life”, the 58-year-old physician’s response is quick: “Gratefulness and fascination; respect and responsibility.” It was more than 25 years ago when the founder of the Swiss Paraplegic Foundation (SPF), Dr. Guido A. Zäch, convinced Gmünder to come to Nottwil. And even though he can’t personally attend to each and every patient, he makes sure “that we as a team never lose sight of the overarching goals of our quest.” Patients’ functional capacity as human beings and hence their ability to participate in family, professional and social life are factors that are very close to his heart.

The internist, rehab physician and geriatrician Hans Peter Gmünder (58), who also completed studies in economics on the side, has headed the SPC clinic as CEO since 2011. Gmünder, who grew up in Allgäu not far from the Swiss border, came to Nottwil for the first time in 1991 after having completed his medical studies and initial professional activities in Berlin. His extensive career has included posts as senior or chief physician at the Bürgerspital in Solothurn, the Suva Clinic in Bellikon, as well as several geriatrics clinics in Germany.

Through the bright entry hall of SPC roll many patients on wheelchairs adapted to their specific needs in the Nottwil workshops. Gmünder greets colleagues and family members who have come for a visit. With the aid of a wooden model, he shows the new wings of the facility that are currently under construction. Opened in 1990 and, as a clinic, the cornerstone of the Swiss Paraplegic Foundation, the SPC is growing constantly – not least of all due to the highly promising holistic approach to treatment and social reintegration that has been practised here since day 1.

Highly specialised know-how in the various medical and paramedical disciplines is crucial. “But it also requires elements that link those disciplines so we can take the right approaches in the right way at the right time,” says Gmünder. Amongst them are things like psychological counselling and vocational guidance for the patient. The healing process is a dynamic, constantly changing interplay of factors. For the SPC CEO, this is a matter of recognising and appreciating the individual contribution as an integral part of the greater whole. And that requires a special mindset: “With each other and for each other, not at the expense of others; joy in interaction and engagement – with and on behalf of our patients” is Gmünder’s leitmotif, and he imbues it in his team.

The Swiss Paraplegic Centre in Nottwil LU is the acute treatment and rehab facility of the Swiss Paraplegic Foundation’s service network. It conducts some 1,000 stationary medical procedures each year. This fully integrated network renders services that range from first responder care at the scene of an accident, to stationary medical treatment and rehabilitation, through to the lifelong support and counselling of para- and tetraplegics. It gets financed by its 1.8 million members in the Benefactor’s Association.

Putting scientific findings into actual practice

Aside from supervising SPC’s acute medical treatment and rehabilitation activities, Gmünder also maintains a link with science by fostering clinical research and collaboration with domestic and foreign university hospitals. For him, it’s not only important to provide researchers access to patients and the compendium of therapeutic know-how, but also subsequently apply the scientific findings in practical day-to-day work. But, he points out with a sigh, society – both domestic and international – also needs to be capable of bearing the cost of medical progress.

“Society, of course, also needs to be capable of bearing the cost of medical progress.”

His primary interest is in the benefit realised by patients. Together with them, so-called participation goals are defined: What is accomplishable within a given time frame, assisted or unassisted? Which path will be taken on the grand tour of life? “We may not offer just functional assistance; rather, as part of this process we must take into account the handicapped persons’ entirety and accompany them step-by-step back into their daily life,” emphasises Gmünder. That takes patience and willpower – and, of course, time.

For a partially paralysed individual, strength training of the leg musculature is important. During physiotherapy, the Motion Maker (Swortec) sees to it that those muscles are exercised by means of functional electrostimulation.
At Orthotec AG, a subsidiary of the Swiss Paraplegic Foundation, close to 500 custom wheelchairs are sold each year. Pictured here: an electric wheelchair is the basis for mobility of a tetraplegic.