The Son Also Rises

Fort Worth warehouse owner Bruce Conti turns his love for transformation into his life’s biggest project – trying to help his son walk again.

Bruce Conti believes in transformation. The native Fort Worth commercial real estate developer has taken buildings like the old Ranch Style Beans plant just east of downtown and turned it into the Trinity River Distillery and Wild Acre Brewing Co., with open air porches and indoor spaces for parties.

He bought the old Fort Worth Star-Telegram printing plant off Interstate 35 West with partners and converted that 280,000-square-foot space into office and retail for tenants like Pier 1 Imports, Cook Children’s Medical Center and Ben Hogan Golf Equipment Company. Same with the 250,000-square-foot Bombay Distribution building in north Fort Worth’s Mercantile development.

Conti’s holdings also include the old Winn Dixie warehouse, a former Target, and the 153,000-square-foot Dairy Pak building off of 8th Avenue on Fort Worth’s Southside – 2.4 million square feet in Tarrant County. His first large building purchase was in 1996 – the 350,000-square-foot former Tandycrafts headquarters on Everman Parkway for $2.35 million.

But it’s the site at the old Levitz Furniture building on Camp Bowie Boulevard where Conti is on an absorbing mission much more important to him than converting old empty space into usable office or retail square footage.

This 144,000-square-foot building is now home to the Neurological Recovery Center, a rehabilitation and physical therapy center built from the ground up in the old Levitz’s shell by Conti. And it’s safe to say the transformation he wants there is way beyond a typical real estate redo. He has spent $5 million in developing a state-of-the-art, high-tech physical therapy rehab center for long-term patients of brain injury, stroke and spinal injury.

But the transformation he’s hoping for there is to get his 23-year-old son Spencer walking and moving on his own again. “In the near future, we are very hopeful for our son,” Conti said.

Bruce and Lee Anne Conti, with their son Spencer, who undergoes therapy daily.

“I Was Asking God” Spencer, a graduate of Arlington Heights High School, was a social, active teenager who competed as a wrestler during junior high and high school. He also excelled outside of school in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He was the textbook definition of health.

So, it was more than a surprise when his mother couldn’t rouse Spencer for a dentist appointment when he was home for Thanksgiving break his freshman year from the University of Alabama.

Lee Anne Conti, a stay-at-home mom, found her healthy teen completely unresponsive, and they immediately went to the emergency room at Texas Health Resources. After several days of wondering if Spencer would survive, he was diagnosed with an infection that a team of doctors later could never identify. The infection left Spencer with an anoxic brain injury, complete paralysis and a dire future.

“The doctors said he may live, but he’s not going to walk or talk,” Lee Anne said. Spencer was unable to speak, eat without a feeding tube or move from the neck down. Options for long-term therapy in Fort Worth for such a condition were simply not available, so they took him to the Texas Institute for Rehabilitation and Research Memorial Hermann Research Center in Houston for three months to attempt a recovery.

Not much progress was made there, and the Contis, faced with a daunting challenge few parents experience, looked to a higher being for answers.

“I was asking God, where do you want us to go; what do you want us to do?” Bruce Conti said. “It was then I turned to Lee Anne and said, ‘I think we’ve got to build a clinic in Fort Worth.’”   

Bruce Conti speaks to a patient undergoing therapy.

“Don’t Stop; Keep Him Moving” A TCU business graduate and industrial graphics manufacturer before he became a real estate developer, Conti knew nothing about physical therapy or brain injuries. But he dived into the research like a young intern studying for the medical boards, Lee Anne said, looking for the latest studies, high-tech equipment and clinical trials that could help bring his son back to physical health.

Conti first opened a boutique clinic for his one patient in 3,800 square feet at his former Target building on Interstate 30 and Cherry Lane in west Fort Worth. There he bought his first computerized LokomatPro machine from Switzerland-based Hocoma for $400,000 to help reteach Spencer to walk. The machine is designed to help patients placed in a harness replicate a walking pattern that can stimulate neuroplasticity in the brain and retrain the brain and spinal cord to work together.

“The best advice we got from the doctors was ‘Don’t stop,’” Lee Anne said. “Keep him moving.”

Along with Spencer — who spends five hours a day, six days a week at the center going through a variety of therapies — other long-term rehab patients quickly discovered the high-tech facility. Within a matter of weeks, NRC had 10 patients. Then the floodgates started to open.

Therapists work with Spencer Conti in the Neurological Recovery Center's pool.

“We grew very quickly,” Conti said. “We were constantly getting calls from patients with strokes, cerebral palsy, brain injuries. We opened the clinic just for our son, but there clearly was a lot of need for such a clinic here.”

Outgrowing their original space, Conti moved the center last spring to the Levitz site. The space now houses nine Lokomats, a wide variety of other robotic equipment for shoulder, arm and hand rehab and vertical standing; a 60-foot, saltwater indoor pool for aqua therapy; hot yoga and neuromuscular massage service; acupuncture; and a new virtual reality space, where games like Fruit Ninja are helping patients reconnect neuro pathways for more mobility.

“We help patients who need way more therapy than a couple of hours a week for 10 weeks,” he said. “Most of our patients are pretty compromised. We developed a comprehensive program that includes everything. We may have some of our patients in excess of seven years.”

The new space on east Camp Bowie has increased NRC’s patient load to 143, with a waiting list of 33, Conti said.

Patients range in age from 7 to 91; some travel hundreds of miles for treatment. NRC takes a specific patient group who has low levels of mobility from stroke, spinal injury or brain injury. The center is focused on one-on-one physical therapy treatment for its patients and employs 32 doctors of physical therapy and physical therapy aides to do the job. That will increase to 50 employees this year, Conti said.

The Neurological Recovery Center has more than 140 patients and a waiting list of 33.

Veterans Clinic Up Next A new rehab space inside the center will open soon for disabled veterans where such issues as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will be treated along with long-term rehab resulting from injuries, Conti said. Some of the space, including the pool, virtual reality and robotic equipment will be shared with the general patient population, but the veteran side of the building will include a separate entrance, a lounge area with sofas and a pool table and an outdoor patio for just the vets.

Conti said the veteran clinic, a nonprofit 501(c)3, will accept veterans at no charge in an economic model based on donations similar to that used by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

All the current patients on the other side of the clinic are covered at least in part by insurance except for 27, whom the clinic accepts on a pro bono basis. Even with insurance revenue, the clinic is losing money – $1.5 million last year, Conti said. Asked how long he can go on losing money, he gave a small smile and said, “A while.”

Along with the patients, the medical community is taking notice of the Neurological Recovery Center.

“In a visionary mindset, Bruce has set up the NRC to provide state-of-the-art care for patients,” said Nicoleta Bugnariu, physical therapist, a Ph.D., and interim dean of the School of Health Professionals at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

The clinic serves as a place for UNT student doctoral physical therapists to do their clinical rotation and later as an employer for a number of the DPTs upon graduation, Bugnariu said.

In addition, NRC is pushing its treatment options out further by positioning itself with UNT to be a research facility because of its equipment and longitudinal data from patient interactions, opening it up for clinical trials.

“Bruce and I had discussed and agreed to setting up a formal partnership for a patient registry that will be under UNTHSC Institutional Review Board and facilitate research,” Bugnariu said.

Their first collaboration, along with the University of Texas-Arlington Research Institute, is a research grant proposal for a soft robotic rehabilitation glove to facilitate motion therapy for the hand. The proposal includes developing a glove prototype and integrating virtual reality applications into the exercise program done with these gloves.

The soft robotic glove technology focuses on the rehabilitation of fine motor functions in the hand and looks to help patient recovery in daily living activities such as grasping small objects, according to Muthu Wijesundara, Ph.D., principal research scientist and leader of the Biomedical Technologies Division at UTARI.

Therapy activities are designed both for patients with injury to their hands as well as stroke patients where the signal from the brain to the hand is disrupted, Wijesundara said.

“This will help patients maintain muscle tone in the hand and help establish new neural pathways from the brain to the hand,” he said.

Robotics are going to play a key role in physical therapy, in part because the patient population is growing rapidly, and the number of trained therapists will not be enough to accommodate their needs, Wijesundara said. Just as importantly, robotics can measure treatments and outcomes better than therapists alone, leading to better therapy outcomes, he said.

“Robotic equipment can collect data on patient performance and do analysis to customize protocols based on a patient’s condition,” he said. “With enough information on patient recovery, analysis can lead to the development of more effective therapy protocols.”

Wijusundara said his group works with other rehab centers in the area, but no one has the breadth and depth of robotic equipment found at NRC.

“It is unique compared to other clinics,” he said. “It has more rehabilitation robotic systems than any of the other places I have seen.”

“He’s Really an Innovator” Such clinical trials are only the beginning of what Conti wants to explore for treatments, he said. To aid in that development, the NRC recently added a medical doctor, Brian Wood, M.D., a traumatic brain and spinal cord injury specialist at Rochester Regional Health in New York, to become NRC’s clinical director. Wood has experience in treating traumatic brain and spinal cord injury and neurodegenerative diseases, as well as trauma rehabilitation.  

“I have a strong background of physics, chemistry and mathematics in addition to being an MD,” Wood said. “I’m part engineer, part medical doctor, specializing in neurologic rehabilitation, so the center proved to be an ideal fit for me.”

Wood said Conti will remain the prime mover behind development of treatments at the center.

Virtual reality is among the tools Bruce Conti has brought into the Neurological Recovery Center.

“He’s really an innovator,” Wood said. “He regularly sends me medical studies on treatments he’s read and asks my opinion. There’s not many people who can comprehend these studies as he is able. I feel like I’m speaking to a medical colleague.”

At the same time, Wood said that Conti’s background in business helps bring a different strength to developing such a clinic.

“Bruce’s business acumen exceeds by a very long shot those involved with most of these ventures,” Wood said.

In addition to development of its own virtual reality therapies, the center has plans to advance various facets of neurologic recovery with bold, multifaceted treatments, Wood said.  These include stem cell utilization, neuroimmunologic infusion (a treatment using the immune system) and other techniques that are cutting edge, in various stages of readiness to be deployed, Wood said.

“Bruce is committed to technological innovation in uncharted realms and, at the same time, is devoted to evidence-based practice and safety,” Wood said. “It’s definitely an exciting time to be at NRC.”

Brian Wood, center, the Neurological Recovery Center's new medical director

And he’s driven to improve the lives of his patients — but mostly his son.

“I feel great,” Spencer said at the end of one of his five-hour sessions recently at the center. Lee Anne said her son’s memory is better than her own now, and his verbal skills are almost back 100 percent.

Spencer’s favorite rehab is walking on the Lokomat with the virtual reality headset. His physical therapist said after three years of intense therapy, Spencer can now follow directions, speak and eat, and has improved tone, posture, trunk control and overall responses. His first meal eating on his own was from Whataburger.

Spencer has goals of his own – long term, he wants to start a family and work for his dad. And for the short term? “My immediate short-term goal is ASAP to walk again,” he said. “That would make my whole life a whole lot easier.”

It’s a goal Bruce and Lee Anne are developing, too. 

By Teresa McUsic / Photography by Olaf Growald  Teresa McUsic is a Tarrant County freelance writer.