New Beginnings

By Billy Polansky

For most people Rusk Rehabilitation Center is just another brick building on the Business Loop. Although if you’ve had a stroke, traumatic brain injury, or spinal cord injury, Rusk will turn your life back around. I visited Rusk on a cloudy Friday afternoon to visit with some of their therapists and patients who use Rusk’s Therapy Garden. I heard that the staff were using this garden quite a bit with their patients so I wanted to stop by and see it for myself. In Rusk’s courtyard I met with Nicole Jacomb an occupational therapist and Sylvester Franklin Jr., a spinal cord-injury patient. Franklin immediately expressed his gratitude for all of the staff and Rusk and told me “Rusk is my new beginning”. A few months back he was in an accident that had him in a bed at the University Hospital for two months, then he came to Rusk where he has been for the last six weeks. Before his accident he was athletic, he went to the gym, played football, and swam at the pool. As you can imagine, the last few months have difficult for Franklin who is now in a wheelchair.

Franklin told me it can be hard to find the motivation to get out of bed some days, but the therapy garden keeps him moving on the bad days. He went on to say that the garden and the staff at Rusk have taught him patience. Now that he has been upgraded to a power chair, Sylvester spends as much time as he can outside and in the garden. “It gets depressing in there. As soon as I’m done in the gym or with an activity, I fly outside to get a piece of the sun.” Sylvester said with a chuckle. Another patient, Shelly Jackson,  joined us in the courtyard, she agreed, “For me it’s the sunshine, it’s just fun to get out, I love sitting here and looking at the flowers”.

Jacomb gets her patients out of their room, and out of the hospital as often as she can “When the patients are outside, they really open up more than they would in their room.” The therapy garden is just another tool that she can use to engage patients and get them to do their occupational therapy exercises. Rusk’s courtyard has gardens in ground, in pots, and raised at various heights where patients can sit, squat, kneel, or stand. The variation in garden types can help patients who require a wheelchair or walker to practice managing their new device. “They push you hard, and will find all kinds of different ways to get you to do your exercises” said Franklin. Jackson is rebuilding her muscles to use a new prosthetic leg. She practices standing by using a garden bed raised four feet from the ground.

Work in the gardens can help build hand strength or fine motor skills when patients squeeze a hose nozzle, pull weeds, or plant small seeds. Nicole reminisced about a former patient who was a retired farmer. One day they were harvesting sweet potatoes and she couldn’t get him to come back inside, he wasn’t going to stop until the job was done, “I couldn’t get him to do the exercises in the gym but out here he was doing them without even knowing it”.

Franklin said that when his mom comes to visit him, they sit out in the garden and “she gets this smile on her face, I know she’s thinking of when she was younger and the time she spent with her family in the garden”. This courtyard and therapy garden brings people together and sparks conversations. It gets patients out of their rooms and lets them soak in some Vitamin D. The garden motivates, it isn’t just the physical exercise that benefits the patients, but to quote Franklin “it’s the mental and the physical”.

To me Rusk is a place of hope, it is a hospital where everyone knows they get to go home. Rusk is a place where people are entering a new chapter of their life, there are many uncertainties and frustrations, but there is a community of doctors, therapists, and patients who support and inspire each other.  Shelly told me “When I am out here it gets me excited for my own garden at home.” Thinking of the future, Franklin said, “I’m just ready for phase two.” I asked him what that meant and he nodded his head saying “It is when I start learning how to walk again.”

Two years ago Rusk’s Director of Therapy, Tori Sisson and Controller, Jeff Reese came up with the idea for a therapy garden. That fall the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture met with Jeff and Tori and helped start the Therapy Garden in the hospital’s courtyard. Reese said that since the garden was added and the landscaping improved, the courtyard has seen more people are spending time outside, “even staff on their lunch breaks”.


Shelly Jackson (right) told me “I love getting my hands in the dirt. The first time we came out here, they asked me if I wanted gloves, I said ‘NOPE’”


Sylvester Franklin Jr. admires herbs he planted in the Rusk Therapy Garden.



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