Life after a brain injury

Broom handles. Blue Duct tape. Toilet plungers.

Doesn’t seem like much alone, but MacGyvered together, these three items have the ability to assist individuals in achieving cognitive wellness. Just ask Susan Taylor, who used the items recently as part of a painting workshop during a brain injury day program in Lee.

In 2011, Taylor was working in the manufacturing field in Pittsfield when she suffered a stroke. As a result, the entire left side of Taylor’s body was impaired. Diagnosed with hemiparesis, Taylor had a long road of recovery ahead and was referred to rehabilitative treatment in Boston. In 2013, Taylor was introduced to a program in Lee that’s helped her better navigate the direction of her care. Over the years, that program evolved, housed under the umbrella of Pittsfield-based nonprofit Berkshire County Arc, to meet the needs of individuals with acquired brain injuries — like Taylor — and traumatic brain injuries as well as those with a related cognitive need. And last year, that community-based day program was developed into a separate service in a space of its own at 133 Quarry Hill Road in Lee called, Nu-Opps. The program name, short for “New Opportunities,” offers a broad range of therapeutic and clinic services to meet the needs of people with brain injuries and includes focused programming on cognitive and memory skills, fitness, and health, said Michael Turner, special projects coordinator at Nu-Opps.

(Emily Thurlow) Visual art workshops are designed for participants to reflect on experiences.

“The program is person-centered and specific to each individual’s needs because everyone has different needs. Everyone has different life experiences and backgrounds. Recovery isn’t one-size-fits all, so treatment shouldn’t be either,” said Turner.

Through structured and goal-oriented programming, Nu-Opps helps its clients facilitate self-management and living on their own.
When Taylor first started coming to the program, now known as Nu-Opps, she barely spoke and was afraid of falling, said Liz Bartini, program director at the Lee facility. There were times when Taylor would approach a curb and just freeze, paralyzed by fear, Bartini added.

“I was afraid I’d fall and break some bones and then have to start all over again,” said Taylor.

Since then, Taylor has been significant strides in her recovery, said Bartini.

Now, Taylor, who uses a wheelchair, estimates she can walk roughly 450 feet down the hall at Nu-Opps with staff walking beside her.

“Sue doesn’t like to rely on other people and I think that’s a big part of what’s helped her continue to achieve her goals,” said Bartini.

Taylor is also working toward gaining mobility in her left arm, she told the Record during a recent interview while extending her to showcase the progress of her dexterity.

In addition to physical and occupational therapies provided at Nu-Opps, the facility has allowed Taylor to tap into her creative side. Nu-Opps partners with several community nonprofits and organizations, such as the Williamstown Theatre Festival and Great Barrington nonprofit Community Access to the Arts (CATA). Though Taylor wasn’t always interested in participating in some of the offered programming, working with Williamstown Theatre Festival and CATA is something she looks forward to, said Debbie Caiola, director of Nu-Opps.

With the festival, participants from Nu-Opps commit to being a part of an original play and work to mesmerize songs and movements.
“She wanted nothing to do with [Williamstown Theatre Festival] the first year,” said Caiola with a chuckle, looking at Taylor. “But it’s been so great for her and she loves it.”

Taylor agrees.

With CATA, Taylor and several Nu-Opps clients took on a 12-week mask project. Creating the artwork was based on the Unmasking Brain Injury Project, started at Hinds’ Feet Farm in North Carolina, a special home for brain injury survivors as a way for survivors to express themselves. With the Lee project, a Nu-Opps speech and language pathologist helped illicit words to express how clients at Nu-Opps felt about themselves before their brain injury and how they see themselves now, explained Jeff Gagnon, program manager at CATA, who helped facilitate the project. Once there were words to express the feeling, Gagnon and staff at Nu-Opps helped clients select materials and paint colors to express those feelings and emotions.

“It was so powerful to see the work that went into this project. For Sue, she described how she finds a calmness when she’s creating puzzles,” he said. “She’d collect each puzzle piece and intentionally place it each position.”

To complete her mask, Taylor chose shades of lime and chartreuse and placed pieces of a puzzle with flowers on it. Some pieces were connected and some were further apart.

(Emily Thurlow) Susan Taylor holds her artwork up at Nu-Opps in Lee.

“I am strong, independent and smart. I experienced a stroke and that changed a lot of things. I had to learn to walk and talk again. I am persistent and keep working every day to live my life the way I want,” she described to the pathologist. “Life is a complicated puzzle. Sometimes the pieces fit together and sometimes they don’t. Life can be quite beautiful when the pieces don’t fit together quite as planned.”

The mask project is just one of several other weekly visual art workshops lead by CATA. The projects are designed to be process-driven and meaningful and help participants reflect on their identity and help them recognize artistic integrity, said Gagnon. Programming like that more recently lead by artist Michael Woloski utilized a creative use of materials that were adapted to meet the wide range of abilities at Nu-Opps.

The creation of Nu-Opps was developed to serve the needs of those with brain injuries and is one of few in the state, said Turner.

“There is life after a brain injury and we try to help our clients see that at Nu-Opps,” he said.

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