The Art of Healing: Theresa Reer's Story
When she didn’t have a voice, U.S. Army veteran Theresa Reer found a way to express herself through art.
Muddy hands. A spinning wheel of clay. An unburdened mind. Capt. Theresa Reer waxes poetic talking about her love for making pottery. But for this U.S. Army veteran and Ohio native, the experience isn’t really about the end product. It’s about the process, about what she experiences while she creates: the art of healing.
"Art has been my saving grace,” she says. “No matter what I’m feeling, I can put that into my art, into my sculptures, or onto paper, and it’s OK. I’m able to channel my emotions and release them in a positive way.”
Theresa, now 48, made her first drawings and paintings during her three years as a patient at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. As a medical specialist officer attached to the 3rd Infantry Division in Afghanistan, Theresa had sustained serious injuries to her left hip and pelvis, and endured subsequent complications. She used a wheelchair for nearly two years as a result.
In addition to her visible injuries, Theresa had also experienced two traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) that led to expressive aphasia — great difficulty in speaking and finding the right words to use when she could speak.
Art often served as her only form of expression.
“I didn’t have a voice, literally, to talk through the things I needed to back then,” she says.“There was a lot of stuff I wasn’t dealing with about losing comrades on the battlefield and the survivor’s guilt that comes with that. So, I communicated through art how I was feeling.”
As Theresa progressed, contacts in the Wounded Warrior Project and the Semper Fi & America’s Fund pointed her toward the SHARE Military Initiative at Shepherd Center. Here, specialists addressed concerns related to her TBIs, including vestibular issues affecting her balance and speech. SHARE’s comprehensive rehabilitation program delivers world-class treatment that makes a world of difference, at no cost to veterans, service members, and first responders who, like Theresa, are dealing with post-traumatic stress and may need other mental health services.
“From the very beginning, I felt like I was part of the family there,” Theresa says. “The SHARE team made me feel welcome, and it was comfortable being in a program with other veterans. It was the first time I felt like a lot of my vestibular problems, and mental health needs, were being understood and addressed.”
As part of her SHARE experience, Theresa pursued every recreational therapy opportunity she could at Shepherd Center, from musical therapy to swimming with sharks at the Georgia Aquarium.
But it was the art therapy classes that proved most transformative. Theresa made bowls, mugs, and more in her first introduction to the pottery wheel. And she learned how peaceful and restorative horticulture could be as she built terrariums and sculpted decorative plants.
“The greatest thing about SHARE is they expose you to a lot of different options, so you can find what’s therapeutic for you,” Theresa says. “When you’re recovering from injuries, you often lose confidence in your ability to do a lot of things. The SHARE staff encourages you to focus on your abilities rather than your limitations. I felt empowered to try new things and find a sense of purpose in this new life of mine.”
Theresa, now medically retired from the Army, is taking her artistic pursuits to the next level. She was accepted to a three-week visual art program through CreatiVets, in partnership with The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Southern California.
She’s also taking time to reflect. When Theresa pulls out her earliest artwork from Walter Reed, she sees lots of grays and blacks, a cloak of shadowy colors on her canvases.
“I look at those now, and I think, ‘Wow, I was in a really dark place,’” she says. “But that was OK for then. That’s what I needed to work through. When I look at my work now, and from my time in the SHARE program, I see pieces that are full of color. They symbolize the progression in my recovery.
“Life might look different now, but it can also look brighter.”
Written by Phillip Jordan
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 740 inpatients, nearly 280 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.