Returning To Golf After Stroke

Genesis and WIU students help stroke survivors resume sport

Three years after his stroke, Greg Pietraszewski told his wife she could donate his golf clubs to the church garage sale.

He had overcome much after his stroke in 2007 -- from losing the ability to speak and move his right side to learning to walk and talk again. He also had lived 40 years with rheumatoid arthritis, a painful disease that led to 11 joint replacements over the years.

Greg Pietraszewski

Greg Pietraszewski, who had a stroke
in 2007, is back on the golf course
again with the help of Genesis
recreational therapist Amy Weaver.
The program, at Red Hawk Golf
Course in Davenport, is collaboration
of the Genesis Stroke  Prevention &
Recovery Center (SPARC) & Western
Illinois University-Quad Cities.

No matter how upbeat he remained in the face of adversity, Greg Pietraszewski had to be realistic. He figured his golfing days were over.

That is, until the letter from Genesis arrived.

The letter invited him to play golf with fellow stroke survivors at Red Hawk Golf Course in Davenport. The program is a collaboration of the Genesis Stroke Prevention & Recovery Center and Western Illinois University-Quad Cities. It seemed almost too good to be true.

Greg, 64, of Coal Valley, Ill., could return to his beloved sport -- with the security of being with people who understood stroke patients. He could improve his range of motion, strength, balance and endurance. He didn’t have to worry about moving too slow or taking too long to say the right words; he would be with others who had lost abilities, too.

As a side benefit, he would discover new purpose. He and fellow golfers could help give practical experience to students of Western Illinois University Associate Professor Dr. Marcia Jean Carter, CTRS, and the university’s Recreation, Park and Tourism Administration program.

The night before his golfing comeback, Greg was so excited he set out his golf clothes and told his wife, Kathy, exactly when to wake him.

“It felt really good to get out and stretch myself and be out on the course again,” Greg recalls of that first fall session in 2010.

A stroke of therapy

He was paired with Genesis recreational therapist Amy Weaver, who has assisted him throughout the fall and spring sessions. The two became fast friends, each with something to teach the other.

Greg has taught Amy a lot about golf, enough for her to go and play on her own. She has kept him safe while serving as his therapist and chief motivator.

Before his stroke, an athletic Greg golfed once a week and even had clubs modified to accommodate his arthritis. The couple never dreamed he would need golf clubs again.

“Greg is out breathing fresh air again and feeling good about himself,” his wife, Kathy, says. “He’ll come home and tell me exactly how he did. A huge benefit is that his therapist, Amy, is watching his improvement from week to week. It holds him accountable and motivates him to do his golf exercises throughout the week. He looks forward to her feedback.”

Recreational Therapist Amy Weaver says golf has helped Greg increase his mobility, confidence and social skills. “He used to be a very good golfer. He’s amazingly positive, even though there are some aspects of golf he no longer can do. He can’t bend over and pick up the ball or hit it nearly as far. He likes the shorter, adaptive holes. But he is highly motivated and knows if he exercises at home he can achieve more on the golf course.”

Like many stroke survivors, Greg has aphasia and can’t always say the right words. At times, he has been uncomfortable about being at public events that required him to talk to other people.

A common bond

At Red Hawk, he and fellow stroke survivors are united by a common bond. “Everyone has their challenges,” Greg says. “I have a bad leg; someone else might have memory loss. Some can hit the living daylights out of the ball. I can’t hit it very far, but the ball is straight. My putting is good.”

In addition to golfing, participants do stretching exercises, socialization and cognitive activities and pre-and postassessment tests to show how they have improved.

“Oftentimes, people are reluctant to go back to the golf course with the disabilities that have resulted from their stroke,” says social worker Alicia Owens, SPARC coordinator. “Being with 10 other people who walk in their same shoes is very comforting and non-threatening. They find they are not alone.

“I hear stroke patients who were once avid golfers say, ‘I don’t think I’m ever going to get back on the golf course.’ This program offers hope. After a stroke, you have a ‘new normal.’ You’ve changed emotionally or physically -- sometimes both. People like Greg who choose to become ‘survivors’ -- and then eventually ‘thrivers’ -- discover they can get back to the things they once enjoyed.”

At first, Kathy was hesitant to leave her husband at the golf course. As his caregiver, she had grown used to being with him in public in case he needed help communicating his thoughts.

“I felt comfortable with this program early on. Dr. Carter is so caring with the students and stroke survivors,” she says. “Everyone was patient and left Greg time to come out with his words. By the second or third time, he was saying, ‘See you later.’ We each had a little freedom.”

To help in his ongoing recovery, Kathy creates a chart for Greg that prompts him to exercise his body and brain. Golf exercises have become part of his weekly ritual.

Life after stroke has strengthened the couple’s marriage, they say. She has learned from her husband’s tenacity and persistence after stroke and has become more patient. Seeing him wake up happy each morning reminds her to count her blessings, too. One unexplainable blessing in the stroke’s aftermath has been the disappearance of Greg’s rheumatoid arthritis.

“We find strength from our faith -- a belief that God uses all things in your life for good. Trials can make you either better or bitter. We chose better,” Kathy says. “Every day is a choice: You can look at what you don’t have or what you do have. When you survive a near-death experience, every day becomes a gift.”

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