August 22, 2023
He couldn’t have been the same person.
My colleague Kaitlin Thompson and I had popped into a patient’s room at Cambridge Tower A this spring to watch a speech therapist at work. The therapist worked with a man who had undergone a procedure, and he hadn’t swallowed on his own much since getting his breathing tube out.
Wow, I thought. You have to learn to swallow again? I had no idea speech therapists did that kind of thing. I had only known them to work with kids in schools.
What really blew mind happened the following week.
From hospital to rehabilitation
Kaitlin is a nurse who works full-time as a writer now in Corporate Communications at The University of Kansas Health System, the team charged with telling our stories directly to our thousands of employees. She’s accompanied me throughout our 39th and Rainbow location so I can write this blog and other projects. She clues me in on what’s going on clinically. Plus, she laughs loud and often, so that makes it more than fun.
The both of us were dead quiet that day when the gentleman first swallowed a bit of water from speech therapist Ramie White’s spoon, his concerned family looking on. I’m telling you – I wasn’t convinced it was the same man when Kaitlin pointed him out a week later at the health system’s acute inpatient rehabilitation unit. I finally believed when I saw his wife next to him. I remembered her from the room that day.
“In the hospital, you've got all the lines and tubes and alarms, and you're in a hospital gown with your yellow socks on,” said Mariah Kolessar. “It’s part of our program. You lose a lot of that stuff when you come over. And people bring in clothes from home. Everybody gets up and gets dressed for the day and does their daily living skills that we all do.”
The inpatient rehab unit is located across Rainbow Boulevard from the hospital campus in Kansas City. It’s in a building it shares with other businesses. Kaitlin arrived a few minutes before me and saw the gentleman first.
“He probably looked much different because he was up and dressed in street clothes with shoes on and was walking around and everything,” Kolessar said. “We see it a lot. It's a pretty unique setting and really fun.”
It is rare that you ask a physical therapist, ‘Do you wish you would have gone into something else?' Going into physical therapy was the best decision that I ever made for myself. And I've never, never thought anything different.Mariah Kolessar, rehab manager
It takes a team
Kolessar oversees the unit. Her team works primarily with those affected by stroke and brain and spinal cord injuries, although the team deals with “other stuff” all the time. Trauma suffered in a car accident, a tumor removed …
One thing these patients have in common is they have to relearn how to do everyday tasks we take for granted.
“The first time they let me get up and walk around, I was like, this is climbing Mt. Everest here,” said Tom, coming back from an episode at home that landed him in intensive care days before. His physical therapist, Jade Byerly, had made him feel comfortable enough to take the initial steps in his recovery.
Therapist Amanda Britton-Carpenter had her patient, Jim, throwing darts. He got closer and closer to the bullseye just days after bleeding on the brain.
And Mike, himself a surgical technician years ago who worked for a manufacturer for 30 years, told me he’d lost confidence in his ability to get better after 30 back surgeries. His therapist wouldn’t let him quit.
Unlike acute therapy that takes place while a patient is receiving a main treatment – so they don’t lose function – these patients work exclusively on rehab to recapture function of their arms, legs, eyes and, yes, confidence.
Developing a bond
Kolessar believes the nature of therapy, being with a patient for a few hours at a time several days a week, forms a bond someone often doesn’t get in a purely medical setting. The therapists might just love their patients more than the patients love them.
“It is rare that you ask a physical therapist, ‘Do you wish you would have gone into something else?’ Going into physical therapy was the best decision that I ever made for myself. And I've never, never thought anything different.”
Incidentally, another good thing about having Kaitlin along: She’ll tell me things about our people they won’t bring up themselves. It seems Kolessar got fooled into attending what was supposed to be a staff gathering one day, what her vice president, Rick Couldry, PharmD, vice president of health professions, calls his “fireside chats.” A total ruse.
He and Julie Ginter, director of rehab who recruited Kolessar to The University of Kansas Health System years ago, presented her with a “Leader of the Year” award.
“Oh my gosh, I was so shocked,” Kolessar said. “I live and breathe inpatient rehab. And so that's part of what makes my job easy. I have an exceptional team.”