“I was in shock when I was told I’d be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life, but I was determined not to let that stop me from perusing the life I wanted to live,” said U.S. Army Veteran Terry Hayes.
Hayes was diagnosed with Systemic Lupus in 2012 and has been confined to her wheelchair since 2016 due to the progression of her disease.
“I’ve always been extremely active. I’ve played a variety of sports throughout my lifetime including lacrosse and softball in college. I’ve even competed in a marathon,” explained Hayes. “All of a sudden, one day, I was in a wheelchair,” she continued.
This summer, Hayes is looking forward to competing in her first National Veterans Wheelchair Games competition.
The National Veterans Wheelchair Games serves Veterans with spinal cord injury, Multiple Sclerosis, amputations and other central neurological impairments with the goal of increasing their independence, promoting healthy activity and improving their overall quality of life through wheelchair sports and recreation.
“I’m not too concerned with whether I place or win. I’m concerned with whether or not, I’ve done my best. Most of all, I’m really looking forward to the comradery and meeting Veterans from all over,” Hayes said.
Hayes has also recently qualified for the North American Cup Wheelchair Fencing competition. While there, she will be competing in women’s wheelchair fencing. Female athletes from around the country will be matched against each other to compete in foil and saber techniques.
“None of this would be made possible without the support from the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System’s Recreational Therapy team,” explains Hayes. “I needed a specialized fencing wheelchair to compete in this competition, and they made it their priority to get me what was required,” she said.
Recreational therapists play an important role in providing service to Veteran patients in a variety of ways.
“Helping Veterans take part in the things they enjoy is crucial for, not just their physical health, but their mental health,” said Lin Hales, Lead Recreation Therapist, Bay Pines VAHCS
“When someone is unable to physically take part in meaningful leisure pursuits, it can lead them to questioning their purpose and abilities in other aspects of life. Our program focusses on helping Veterans realize what they can do, instead of what they can’t,” she continued.
One of the ways in which recreation therapy helps Veterans realize their potential is through patient education.
“We provide Veterans with resources to a variety of materials and equipment, showing them that adaptations can be made to the activities they enjoy,” Hales said.
Fencing is great therapy and rehabilitation for Hayes. She credits her recent success to practicing the sport two to four times per week.
“I really wanted to take part in a sport that could help improve my upper body strength, prevent my disease from progressing and get me moving again,” said Hayes.
Hayes attributes her improved ability to propel and transfer herself, and increased overall fitness level to the sport of fencing.
“When I was preparing to meet with Terry, I had an idea of the things we would discuss and the adaptive sports options and resources I could provide in the area. However, when I sat down with her and she mentioned fencing, I was taken aback. I’ve never met anyone involved in fencing and I was intrigued to find out what more we could do to get her started,” explained Hales.
VA central office provides specific guidelines when evaluating Veterans for adaptive equipment. Some considerations for adaptive equipment include the Veteran’s overall physical functioning, level of involvement in the activity or sport, and specific adaptions that will allow them to participate with as much independence as possible.
To learn more about recreational therapy or how you may benefit from various services the program provides to Veterans, please call 727-398-6661, extension 17185, or visit: www.baypines.va.gov/services/RTS.asp.
Melanie Thomas, MBA, is Public Affairs Specialist, at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System