Treadmills for astronauts all part of care in new state-of-the-art MS centre

IT is Friday morning at the relaunched Swindon Therapy Centre for Multiple Sclerosis and the common room is a hive of activity. Staff are milling about greeting patients, exchanging a little banter on their way to the purpose-built gym on the newly-unveiled second floor.

Down the corridor, users swaddled in blankets and warm jackets are filing into the frosty hyperbaric oxygen chamber, armed with books and iPads to while away the hour or so ahead in the submarine-like pressurised room.

There is some to-do by the entrance as volunteer Richard Warren squeezes into wet suit shorts and is laboriously zipped into a plastic sheet ‘bubble’ from the waist down for an early test-run of the charity’s new high-tech anti-gravity treadmill. Oxygen is pumped into the transparent membrane and silence falls as it inflates around him.

Originally designed to simulate walking on the moon for astronauts, the £36,000 treadmill bought thanks to a private donation, allows people to feel virtually weightless. It should, chairman Tim Culling explains, give sufferers left gradually crippled by the condition the chance to walk with ease once again and, in some cases, even run for the first time in decades.

As Richard picks up the pace, a small band of volunteers and centre members curiously poke their heads through the door.

“People who are not that mobile can suddenly feel this ability to experience a little bit of normality again,” grins Tim, who took the reins in November 2014.

Multiple sclerosis or MS is a life-long neurological condition that affects the nerves in the brain and spinal cord and causes a wide range of symptoms including problems with vision, arm or leg movement, sensation or balance.

Since its launch in 1983, the Swindon Therapy Centre for MS has been a bastion of hope and support for hundreds of patients across town and beyond; a place for them to get to grips with the incurable disease, manage and relieve some of the debilitating symptoms gnawing away at their independence through physio, light exercise and oxygen therapy. On every one of my visits, the atmosphere has always struck me as surprisingly light considering the devastating condition which brings patients under one roof each week.

But this time more than ever before, there is an unmistakable air of excitement and optimism. The treadmill is hot topic of discussion as is the recent refurbishment.

“Showing off the new facilities to the members was just amazing,” enthuses Tim. “I don’t get emotional about many things but to see the look on their faces, the collective feeling of pride in what we’ve been able to create is amazing. They deserve it. The people who come in are just so lovely and positive and inspirational.”

Rebranded as a Neurology Resource Centre, the hub at Bradbury House on Westmead Drive is worlds apart from the cosy if a little cramped nook it was just a few months ago. Thanks to a £400,000 grant from The Big Lottery – which the charity will receive in instalments over five years – the team embarked on a huge expansion project last spring.

The first injection of cash allowed the charity to hire two new part-time support workers, refurbish the “derelict” first floor and build a spacious state-of-the-art gym complete with specialist equipment designed to help suffers at various stages of the condition, including those wheelchair-bound, to keep as active as possible. Therapy rooms were also created to allow the neurosurgery team at GWH to run clinics from the centre.

While the Big Lottery funding will go some way to help improve services, with running costs of £180,000 a year, £400,000 can only go so far. Thankfully over the years the charity has created solid links with corporate partners including Zurich and Nationwide, adds Tim.

“The aim was to give greater access to therapies, treatment and information,” he says. “That’s what we’re trying to do with all these difference sources of funding.”

The changes are not only material or aesthetic. Tim and his team were keen to future-proof the centre and provide a one-stop shop for people suffering from any neurological condition. This is why the service relaunched in October as a ‘Neurology Resource Centre’.

With this is mind, the centre has teamed up with various charities and community groups, including the local branch of Parkinson’s UK. It has also drafted the CAB to run information sessions on anything from navigating red tape to understanding the benefit system and the Carers Centre to offer patients’ loved ones much-needed respite.

“We are trying to make the facilities available to people with other conditions, but remembering always that we are the Swindon Therapy Centre for MS first, he insists. “The majority of our members have MS and we want to focus on helping them, make their lives as good as they can be.”

For Terry Lanksford, who had been in complete denial of the condition until he joined the centre three months ago, the charity has been a lifeline. The centre, he says candidly, is where he finally came to terms with his diagnosis and learnt to claw back control.

“I found it really hard to accept I had it until I came here,” confides the 51-year-old from Peatmoor. “Even though I knew I had it and my life stopped I was still in denial,” continues Terry, who was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS 11 years ago.

“It only really kicked in when I collapsed three years ago. I lost the whole right side of my body for about a week. It’s in my left side now, I’m struggling to walk. I can’t work anymore. It’s hard.

“But being here is a chance to stay positive and to do something about it. You don’t feel alone any more. There are people here who can relate to you in a way other people just can’t.”

Unlike him, stoic Lynette Warren took her MS diagnosis in her stride, refusing to kowtow to the relentless march of the illness. And yet, she explains, reporting to the centre for oxygen therapy each week for the past two years, she too has found a renewed sense of purpose.

Her body may not be hers to move at will and she struggles to express herself fluently but her visits allow her to focus on what she can control: alleviating symptoms and preventing MS from gaining more ground.

“It’s a frustrating disease, but you learn there’s no point getting frustrated,” says the 67-year-old matter-of-fact. “This place has helped us; I would not give this up,” adds Lynette, glancing at her husband, now free from the treadmill’s cumbersome plastic bubble.

Lynette was 31 when she began experiencing the tell-tale signs of MS, inexplicably tripping over invisible obstacles. She dismissed her occasional tumbles as clumsiness for close to two decades – until in 2000 she took a turn the worse. Barely able to speak or walk for some time, she was finally diagnosed with benign multiple sclerosis at the age of 51.

“There are ups and downs,” admits the former Prospect Hospice nurse from Hullavington. “There are so many things I can’t do anymore. I’m useless. But you have to focus on the good and just hope for the best. If you don’t you might as well give up,” she says firmly. “Being positive, coming here is the only way to cope with this.”

Terry and Lynette are just two of 500 users currently on the charity’s books. And with an estimated 3,500 MS sufferers in the catchment area, newly-diagnosed patients every day and hundreds more suffering from a range of neurological conditions, the team has only scratched the surface.

“That’s the ongoing challenge,” concedes Tim. “Newly-diagnosed people will need our help and support and that’s why we needed to grow. Another challenge is how can we reach more of these 3,500 people? But we need to develop at a pace that means we don’t go from the ridiculous to the sublime. It’s a fine balance.

“Everybody here feels this compulsion to try and reach out to more people and that’s what we will continue to do.”

To get in touch with the Swindon Therapy Centre for MS go to or call 01793 481700.