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Outdoor Therapy Program Helps Patients Get Back to the Great Outdoors

Whether it’s hunting, fishing or kayaking, Shepherd Center’s outdoor therapy program proves no activity is beyond reach.

On his 26th birthday last February, Ryan Gibson met his friends at an off-highway vehicle park near Union Point, Georgia, to ride all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). It is a birthday tradition he has followed for the past five years.

And it’s one Ryan never imagined he’d be able to do again.

On August 8, 2015, Ryan was spending the day with friends on Lake Hartwell when he dove off the back of a boat and hit the bottom of the lake, causing an incomplete spinal cord injury at the C-7 level. He is paralyzed from the neck down and has limited use of his hands. He spent four months in Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program, both as an inpatient and in the day program.

“Riding an ATV was something I never thought I would be able to do again,” Ryan says. “It was a huge triumph for me.”

He also has relearned how to hunt and drive a Jet Ski.

The self-professed outdoorsy person was able to accomplish his goals with the help of Chris Ravotti, the outdoor specialist in Shepherd’s recreation therapy program. Ravotti’s job is to help clients learn or relearn how to do outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing, camping, kayaking, boating and ATV riding – post injury.

After an initial evaluation, Ravotti sets goals with his clients, and they work on strategies to meet those goals. They often begin practicing inside to learn the skills for outdoor activities – for example, kayaking in Shepherd Center’s pool.

“There are no rules in outdoor recreation,” Ravotti says. “If someone wants to kayak, we look at what challenges he or she needs to overcome – such as a balance or grip deficit – and we develop a way to make it work. I do whatever I can to help them accomplish their goals.”

Ravotti works with his clients in the hospital to troubleshoot, figuring out what adaptive equipment is needed and what does and doesn’t work.

“Most of my interventions focus on helping patients problem solve and adapt their environment to compensate for the loss of function,” he says. “By practicing the skills here, they are able to re-create the experience when they go home.”

For example, Ravotti showed Ryan how to hunt by mounting a stand on the footplate of his wheelchair to hold a rifle steady. At first, Ryan needed an adaptive device to pull the trigger, but his fingers have gotten stronger. Now, he can do it himself. Last fall, he went on a Shepherd-sponsored hunting trip and shot his first deer.

“Until I talked to Chris, I didn’t think I would be able to do any of the activities I had done before,” Ryan says. “He gave me the tools to go out in the real world and actually do it. I could see how the adaptations worked, understand the operation behind it and have an idea what I needed to do when I was on my own.”

Ravotti takes groups on outings about once a month and works with charter and equipment companies, community agencies, and private landowners who donate or discount their equipment and services. Past trips have included salt-water fishing in Panama City Beach, hog hunting in middle Georgia, white water rafting and multiple hunting trips.

Ravotti also acts as the logistics coordinator for Adventure Skills Workshop, the recreation therapy program’s largest annual event bringing people together for a spring weekend of water recreation and other outdoor sports.

When clients want to venture out on their own, Shepherd Center allows people to check out adaptive equipment from the department, including rifle rests and trigger adapters for hunting, gripping aids for fishing and steering aids for ATVs.

Ravotti says it’s very rewarding when he gets messages from former patients with a picture of them on an ATV or on a boat fishing or with their first deer or turkey from a hunting trip.

“I provided opportunities for them to learn the skills, but they had to put in the effort back home for a truly successful intervention,” Ravotti says. “Knowing I played a small part in their success means so much to me.”

Learn more about outdoor recreation opportunities here.

By Sara Baxter
Photos by Louie Favorite

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.