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South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS)

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Rec Therapy – It's not crafts, it's changing lives

A South Texas recreation therapist laughing with some of the Veterans who are taking part in a boccia tournament at the South Texas VA

South Texas VA Recreation Therapist Jose Laguna laughs with Veterans during a recent boccia tournament. Many of the patients playing that day play competitively throughout the region and even at the National level. (VA photos by Steve Goetsch)

By Steve Goetsch
Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Although not a medical professional, but rather one touted for his infinite wisdom, the Dalai Lama advocated for recreation therapy with this quote. “Calm mind brings inner strength and self-confidence, so that's very important for good health,”

In February we celebrated the specialists who help build that self-confidence for the patients of the South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS), the Recreation Therapists (RT) and recreation therapy assistants who run a variety of programs to help patients obtain that “calm mind.”

Recreation Therapy isn’t just about fun and games, although you would think from all of the smiling, laughing and bonding that takes place during RT sessions. According to Anne Robinson, an RT has the same ability to heal just like any healthcare provider.

Robinson, who suffered a neck injury in 1999 that left her paralyzed, also paralyzed her spirit enough that she felt she lost her purpose. But RT Jose Laguna stepped in and changed all of that.

“Jose and his programs literally pulled me back into wanting to live,” said Robinson. “He showed me a video of the first National Wheelchair Games and took me to the mall to get a haircut,” she added.

Those activities gave her the confidence she needed to begin doing other things like bowling. That was an activity she shared with her children and built her self-esteem as a mother, wife and athlete.

Recreation Therapists develop programs using recreational activities to address individual illnesses and conditions as part of a plan of physical and psychological rehabilitation.

The Audie L. Murphy RT’s have varied reasons for pursuing careers in RT. For John Ortiz, who practices at the Kerrville VA Hospital, a bad back began his journey as an RT patient. He enjoyed aqua therapy and that led to other programs like art, music and golf. That personal experience led him down the RT career path.

His RT also shaped his treatment philosophy. “People are people, old or young, they just want to be treated well,” Ortiz said. He added that RT doesn’t focus on a particular illness or age, it treats the person. His desire to give back toVeterans was so great, he uprooted his family from New York to move to Kerrville, Texas and the STVHCS after he saw a position opening.

A wheelchair patient is leaning forward delivering a boccia ball during a recent tournament at the South texas VA

Veteran Irma Pennington delivers a boccia ball during a recent tournament at the South Texas VA. Although Pennington did not require an adaptation device, the recreation therapists work with assistive technology engineers and other groups to ensure as many Veterans can take part as possible. Part of the draw of Boccia, according to Veteran Tammy Jones is that even patients with high-level injuries can play. (VA photos by Steve Goetsch)

The South Texas RT’s are well versed in multiple areas as they rotate through different units in the hospital that utilize their services like mental health, polytrauma, Spinal Cord Injury (SCI), and the Community Living Center (CLC).

RT Joel Caltrider says his biggest challenge is developing diverse, customized programs for mental health patients that might be resistive to participation. He said he accomplishes that by thinking outside the box, utilizing community support and getting staff assistance. The end result is a patient who was initially reluctant to change, becoming involved and having the “a-ha” breakthrough as Caltrider coined it.

Although the VA boasts some of the best programs for TBI, PTSD and other chronic conditions, RT and Navy Veteran Tinyada Robinson, who was completing her internship in a different field at the Tampa VA, saw an area where she could make a big difference for Veterans.

“I was drawn to recreation therapy initially because I saw an opportunity to increase wellness for Veterans,” Tinyada said.

“When I was at the VA hospital, I saw a lot of people walking around that were lost, and just hung out at the hospital.”

She saw how RT’s provided Veterans community engagement, and health promotion activities.  After witnessing RT’s in action, she too, found her new career path.

Tinyada works in the SCI unit with Laguna, and is inspired daily how Veterans like Robinson adapt to new challenges like bowling or playing boccia.

“It’s very rewarding because we see them getting from bed, to ambulating to maybe getting into an assistive device that will help them increase their quality of life,” Tinyada explained.

Because many Veterans are competitive and welcome challenges, a quality of life might include those elements to be effective. The RT’s at South Texas provide those opportunities. Tinyada and Jose Laguna are preparing the team representing the South Texas VA at theNational Veterans Golden Age Games, being held July 10-14 in Detroit.

Army Veteran Daniel Castillo who takes part in many of the RT programs offered, is currently ranked 14th in the country in boccia and has traveled extensively along with Anne Robinson representing South Texas. Castillo says the camaraderie he gets from boccia, and playing power soccer with the San Antonio Scorpions is what keeps him coming back.

A closeup of a cellphone case made out of leather sits to dry on a table located in the Arts & Crafts room in the South Texas VA.

Army Veteran Nathan Todd (background) makes custom leather products in the South Texas VA Arts & Crafts room. Todd says he really enjoys the fellowship that participating in these activities brings, and it is what brought him out of his depression. (VA photo by Steve Goetsch)

If sports aren’t your thing, RT also provides the calm the Dalai Lama alluded to with arts and crafts, visiting with animals, and taking field trips to any number of venues. Army Veteran Nathan Todd was a master saddle craftsman, and owned his own shop for years before he was forced to quit because of injury. He had successful back surgery at Audie that he says changed his life, even moving to San Antonio.

RT has also changed his life, providing him an outlet for his master craftwork in the Arts & Crafts Room at the Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital. He didn’t have space in his apartment, and began using the room after he went through the Stepping Stones program, a wellness and rehabilitative program in 2013. He said that he loves the arts and crafts room and is there so much, it’s almost like a job.

“I was really happy that they opened it up now four days a week instead of just three,” Todd said. “I really like coming here for the fellowship, and I was really down, and helped me with my depression.”

Todd recently finished a couple of projects for the National Creative Arts Festival, a National arts competition that he has won in the past.

Chief of Recreation Therapy, Linda Zaiontz, says that creative arts has both physical and psychological benefits like increased hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, and can reduce stress while developing self-expression and a sense of accomplishment.

But it is that fellowship that Todd speaks of that is the real remedy, not a medal draped across the necks of these Veterans. “I do not think you could get a tighter group than us,” Anne Robinson said, speaking about her boccia group. “That’s because Jose is committed to us and our success, even if we don’t win gold medals.”



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