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Preparation for Independence After Rehabilitation

Shepherd Center’s recreation therapists do what it takes to get patients ready to reintegrate.

How do you help a man who can no longer use his fingers enjoy his favorite hobby of completing jigsaw puzzles?

Shannon Ali spent two weeks trying to answer that question.

The recreation therapist at Shepherd Center finally landed on a solution:  She attached a putty-type adhesive to the eraser of a pencil, then inserted the pencil into a universal cuff attached to the patient’s hand. Moving the cuff with his hand allowed him to pick up the puzzle pieces with the pencil eraser, which he then pushed into the puzzle with his other hand.

This is just one example of the ingenuity that Shannon and the other 23 recreation therapists at Shepherd Center apply to help patients reintegrate into the community. Their aim? Give patients the skills needed for everyday life, including the means to have fun. 

Recreation therapists don’t wait to work with Shepherd Center patients once they improve; they meet with them within one week of their admission. “We find out what a typical day was like before they were injured, what they liked to do and what they want to do going forward,” Shannon says. “Then we come up with a plan to work toward their goals.”

Groups of Shepherd Center patients go on outings to the grocery store, restaurants, movie theaters, sporting events and other places to learn how to maneuver in their “new normal.” The experiences give them an opportunity to practice opening doors, paying for goods and services – even transferring to a restaurant booth and stowing their wheelchairs.

“We problem-solve different scenarios,” says Kelly Edens, CTRS, manager of Shepherd’s recreation therapy program. “Once they learn how to do something at Shepherd, they’re better prepared to continue doing it on their own at home.”

In addition to teaching community reintegration activities, seven of Shepherd’s recreation therapists work in the specialized areas of aquatics, art, exercise, horticulture, music and sports, helping patients get back to what they were doing before their injury, or discover new interests.

“We look at not what you did, but why you did it,” Kelly says. “For example, maybe you played a sport because you liked that sense of competition. So we try to find something else that gives you that same satisfaction.”

Advance legwork is often part of the process. Shannon recalls a spinal cord injury patient who had enjoyed playing rugby. She found a place close to his home where he could play and talked to the coach to arrange his participation. Four years later, the patient called Shannon to tell her he was still playing rugby – and thanked her for pushing him to do it again.

Shepherd Center sponsors 11 sports teams so that people with physical disabilities may compete or just participate. The Center also sponsors several trips throughout the year for those who enjoy activities such as scuba diving, skiing and hunting. And Shepherd’s Adventure Skills Workshop brings people together for a spring weekend of water and other outdoor sports each year.

The recreation therapy program is supported by donor contributions and is open to patients even after they’ve left Shepherd, as well as participants in the community. “We are always a resource, especially to former patients whose needs evolve,” Shannon says. “We want people to be active and welcome them when they come back for help.”

For more information about Shepherd Center's recreation therapy opportunities, click here. To support the program with a donation, click here.

Story by Sara Baxter
Photography by Gary Meek

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.