Each spring, as soon as the water turns warm, Freedom Alliance schedules its James River rafting adventure with the VA poly-trauma patients of Richmond, Virginia.
The Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center (PTRC) at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center is one of five in the Veterans Health Care System. Here active-duty service members find treatment for disabilities. The center specializes in brain injuries, providing physical, cognitive, psychosocial, and recreational therapies. A program called “Amputee Boot Camp” offers support to veterans using prothetic limbs.
PTRC therapists Curtis Robb, April Mizell, and Katina Sokol accompanied seven patients and a patient’s spouse for the Freedom Alliance rafting trip in May.
Curtis, a certified recreational therapist, let us know how such an activity contributes to his patients’ recovery:
“Due to various levels of brain injury, we can work on divided attention, performing a multi-step task, auditory comprehension, coordination for bilateral arms and legs, social skills, endurance, and camaraderie and teamwork.”
When leading an outdoor event such as this, the Freedom Alliance team likes to take the opportunity to talk to the veterans, to hear their stories.
One service member named Tresa had been working to qualify as a search and rescue swimmer for the Navy. After completing the program initially, she just missed the mark by one minute on the 800-meter swim test.
While waiting to reapply (during which time she would serve on a helicopter), Tresa was in a vehicle accident, which broke her neck and required surgery to remove a herniated disc from her spine. She attends the brain injury program at the PTRC.
Tresa joked about the helmet that was required for rafting, saying, “If I kept a helmet on all the time, I wouldn’t be here!” Despite her recent struggles, Tresa keeps her sense of humor and was primed to take on the rapids.
The eleven PTRC crew members boarded two rafts at Riverside Outfitters in Richmond. After a very rainy month, the river had risen five feet over its normal depth, and we knew the water would be lively!
During the three-hour trip, the boats put in at Belle Isle for a picnic lunch. This picturesque river island, once a Civil War prison for Union soldiers, is a city park with trails and rock climbing.
Richmond is the only city in which one can run rapids through its downtown. Our rafters were treated to views of the city’s skyline, bridges, and the famous Hollywood Cemetery, where two U.S. presidents and other notables are buried.
When tackling class III and IV rapids, it seems like someone always falls overboard, and sure enough two rafters took the plunge. But the unforeseen swim didn’t douse the laughter. And even the sun chose to shine brightly on this afternoon, after many days of clouds and rain.
It was almost as brilliant as Tresa’s smile. “It was amazing to get outside and do something thrilling again,” she said.
Later we received thanks from the PTRC therapists:
“The RT [Recreational Therapy] Service here at the Richmond VAMC appreciate the support from Freedom Alliance. This opportunity allows us to provide treatment in a realistic setting to challenge our patients in various ways.”
Recreational therapy is important to veterans suffering from disabilities because it helps to restore their independence and allows them to participate in the activities they enjoyed before their injury. In this way, river rafting instills confidence, helps develop motor and cognitive skills, and provides a fun challenge.