Therapeutic recreation plays to patients’ interests




Whether it’s baking, bowling, scavenger hunts or video games, this Riley team knows how to connect with patients who want to have fun or learn a new skill.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer,

Mary Myers’ job might seem like fun and games, but there’s a lot of serious work going on when she visits with patients at Riley Hospital for Children.

As one of four therapeutic recreation specialists, she works with patients doing things they love – whether it’s cooking, adaptive yoga, golf, tai chi, bowling, wheelchair dancing or playing games.

And it’s just what the doctor ordered.

Therapeutic recreation is different from traditional physical or occupational therapy, but it is complementary, says Brenda Hinton, inpatient manager for rehab services.

“They (therapists) really delve into patient interests, hobbies, what they enjoy,” Hinton said. “In doing that, they are trying to problem-solve, figuring out how they can adapt an activity that the patient enjoys.”

So, while other therapists focus on helping patients manage basic life skills, such as taking a shower, getting dressed and brushing their teeth, therapeutic recreation specialists can concentrate on more fun things.

Like baking chocolate chip cookies.

That’s what Payton Himo was looking forward to when Myers stopped in to see her on the Heart Center recently. Payton, 10, is preparing to be listed for a heart transplant and is always ready for a diversion from life in the hospital.

She and Myers have baked cookies, pretzels and pizza in Payton’s Easy-Bake oven. But they also play games, make slime and work with Play-Doh. It not only keeps Payton busy, it helps moderate her anxiety, her mom said.

“We try to find out what makes them tick, what they’re struggling with and try to help them through it,” Myers said.

That includes lots of activities – recreational, sensory, cognitive and developmental play, depending on the age of the patient.

Myers worked with heart transplant recipient Jeff Taber to set up an improvised kitchen so he could practice making new dishes with an Instant Pot. The trained chef was able to tap into something he loves while also working on physical and cognitive skills to keep him in shape as he waited months for a new heart.

Myers, who previously worked in the adult healthcare setting, joined Riley two years ago. She wasn’t looking for a job change, but when the Riley position opened, it seemed right, she said.

“It was a total God thing. My son was a Riley kid. He’s an adult now, but we almost lost him a few times. Thanks to this hospital, we didn’t.”

The other TR specialists are Jaye Hajduk, who works in pediatric rehab; Michaella Kaneversky, who sees patients on the behavioral health unit, the Charis Center for Eating Disorders and occasionally in Simon Family Tower; and Katie Smith, who focuses on inpatient rehab, as well as behavioral health and Simon Family Tower.

Kaneversky concentrates on strengthening coping skills for many of her patients – teaching games that encourage social interaction and communication.

“A lot of these kids are feeling isolated, so my therapy is focused on finding positive outlets for them to engage with others, whether through artistic activities, music or games,” she said.

Smith, who has a degree in recreational therapy from IU Bloomington, said this is her dream job.

“I’ve always wanted to be in a clinical hospital setting.”

With her patients in rehab, she helps them “practice” for life outside the hospital walls, preparing them for situations and questions from other kids.

“We do a lot of role-playing,” she said.

In younger patients, she relies on toys and stuffed animals to act things out. But for teens, they might take a trip down to a busier area of the hospital, where they can practice for different situations.

For instance, patients who go back to school might feel self-conscious if they are using a wheelchair or a walker, or maybe they have burn scars.

“A kid might ask them, ‘Why do you need a wheelchair, or why do you look like that?’ We help mentally prepare them for that situation so they aren’t shocked when it happens,” Smith said.

Hajduk worked with a former patient who had been a champion dirt bike racer before an accident damaged his spine. Lucas Grounds spent months rehabbing at Riley with traditional therapy.

But as a therapeutic recreation specialist, she arranged a visit to Lucas Oil Stadium for him, his family and his therapy team so they could learn to maneuver the huge stadium with him in a wheelchair, preparing the family to attend a dirt bike competition upon his discharge from the hospital.

Hinton would love to see the therapeutic recreation program continue to grow.

“Kids are excited to see the therapeutic recreation people because they know they’re going to have fun,” she said. “We’ve had a tremendous response, but we know there are way more kids out there we can help.”

Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist,