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Spinal cord unit provides support for whole family

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HOWLAND — Patients touch balloons, pick up bean bags and tighten bolts in Forum Health Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital’s Occupational Therapy room.

They are part of a new program, the Spinal Cord Injury Center of Excellence, which opened May 12.

Rebecca LeBron, clinical supervisor of occupational and recreational therapy, said the hospital spent the past three years preparing to be a center of excellence.

“We gathered a dozen staff members representing every discipline: Social Work, nursing, speech, Physical Therapy, occupational therapy and the others,” she said.

To facilitate the best patient care possible, they developed clinical practice guidelines, ways to overcome “environmental barriers” in facilities used by patients, an admission policy and 14 competency training programs.

The clinical practice guidelines are divided according to different injury levels. LeBron said this allows everyone to know what to expect when a patient comes in. Patients receive a resource binder so they know what they can expect while at Hillside and for their recovery.

“We all know who will evaluate and treat the patient, where care will overlap, and what the patient can expect,” she said.

Coping together

LeBron said spinal cord injuries affect the entire family, not simply the injured person.

Doug Barto is one such patient. A cement wall fell on him about three weeks ago, breaking his leg, three ribs, back and neck.

Barto said Hillside has helped him.

“All I want to do is get back to what I’ve always been able to do: build houses. It’s good here; they’ve been helping me, pushing me to walk,” he said.

Barto’s wife, Danette, said Hillside has been supportive and that the hardest part for her will be when she brings her husband home.

“They’re wonderful; they give a lot of support,” she said. “The challenge will be getting him to not do too much; he’s going to push too hard.”

Ease of care

To make life at Hillside easier for the patients, LeBron said they are working to overcome the “environmental barriers” by renovating rooms one at a time, adding automatic soap, water and hand dryers.

“We’re eliminating a lot of the reaching and gripping,” she said.

In addition, the staff developed an admission policy to share with other health care facilities so they know what kind of patients Hillside accepts.

LeBron said a final building block of excellence is the 14 competency training programs developed for all staff members; ancillary people complete about six of the programs, which offer specialized training in the most up-to-date techniques.

“We are all on the same page, speaking the same language, and we all know what it means,” she said.

Peer support

Peer counseling is another important aspect of Hillside’s Spinal Cord Injury Center of Excellence, LeBron said. Hillside coordinates with the Mahoning Valley Spinal Cord Support Group; its mission statement is “to provide support through education, recreation and peer counseling for persons with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities.”

“We try to match people by age range, sex and level of injury. It provides an opportunity to help people readjust to life by living in a new way,” she said.

The group meets once a month in Hillside’s rehabilitation hall for discussions. The group also organizes outings for the patients, such as a summer picnic and wheelchair art days.

Physical therapy

Hillside also has its own wheelchair-accessible sports complex. The Adapted Sports Program has boccie, miniature golf and archery, and will soon have bicycles, volleyball and basketball.

People pay $10 a month for the Adapted Sports Program.

After patients leave Hillside, they can participate in Hillside’s Physical Exercise Program. For $25 a month, they can come to Hillside and continue exercises independently, but a therapist is on site to offer assistance if needed.

“The purpose isn’t to make money, but to provide them a place to enjoy life,” LeBron said.

Continual care

Dr. Terry A. Puet, medical director, said caring for spinal cord injuries is an ongoing process, not just a 10-minute conversation.

“We like to see them learn how to deal with their injuries; we like to help them get as close as they can to their normal life,” he said.

Puet said Hillside offers personalized ongoing care.

“It really isn’t offered many places, especially the follow-up care. We’ve been doing spinal care since the mid-1960s, when it was a very new area. We had vocational training before the state had their programs,” he said.

“This hospital is a very special place,” LeBron agreed.

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