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Patient Stories

Rehabilitation on Course

Therapeutic Golf Drives Patient Rehab and Relationships

Bryan Hendrickson started putting a golf ball in his living room when he was a child. Now, he’s better than his dad. “My dad’s always aiming for the trees,” he says. Friendly competition between father and son is par for the course.

With 13 years of golfing experience, 27-year-old Bryan finds the hobby rewarding, noticing that he’s “gotten better with time.” Bryan golfs in the Therapeutic Golf Program at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, part of Northwestern Medicine.

This program, led by Certified Therapy Recreation Specialist Tracy Ekstrom, gives youth and adult participants with different abilities the chance to work on their golf games with guidance from physical therapists, occupational therapists, volunteers and PGA pros.

Bryan, who has cerebral palsy, graduated from the youth program to the adult program. Golf — and this program — are important parts of his life.

Why Golf?

Golf is a lifelong leisure skill that you can play when you’re 80 and still receive physical benefits,” says Ekstrom. “It helps improve hand-eye coordination, balance and core strength. It’s a great way for people with disabilities, injuries or illnesses to be physically active and outdoors.”

Physical benefits aside, Bryan says, “It’s a great way to get out and meet new people. It’s fun.”

To help ensure success for all participants, individualized attention is key. For example, Bryan uses an adaptive set of golf clubs sourced by Ekstrom, who connected with a manufacturer that took the time to fit Bryan based on his needs. Bryan’s driver, or “the big boy” as he calls it, has a bit more weight to it. His seven iron, five iron and putter are all also custom-made.

“These clubs have made a big difference in my game,” he says.

Just as she did for Bryan, Ekstrom and her team go above and beyond to make sure each golfer has adaptive equipment. They have single-rider golf carts for wheelchairs thanks to a grant from the United States Golf Association and a donation from the Wadsworth Golf Charities Foundation. Clubs may need to have a different pitch, angle or shape so that golfers can use them. Sometimes this means sourcing equipment from overseas.

“One of our occupational therapists scoured the world for adaptation ideas for a man who was an avid golfer before sustaining a severe spinal cord injury,” says Ekstrom. “She finally found a golfer in Australia who had a similar spinal cord injury and brought the adaptations that were successful for him to the golfer in the Therapeutic Golf Program here.”

The Swing of Things

Once participants are equipped, program facilitators help everyone adapt and master their golf swings and stances. Some golfers need to adjust their swings to their wheelchairs, while others golf with the assistance of a therapist and a gait belt. The ratio of golfers to staff is one to four.

Once a therapist has made sure the golfer is staying within their physical limits and not experiencing any discomfort, a PGA pro offers a technical golf perspective. Therapists also will give golfers exercises they can do off the course to improve their performance.

The Therapeutic Golf Program is limited to people with physical disabilities, injuries or illnesses. All golfers must submit a physician release to participate. Marianjoy offers two programs:

  • The youth program runs May through August at Cantigny Youth Links and is open to children ages eight to 17.
  • The adult program for patients 18 and older runs year-round, excluding October, at various Chicagoland area golf courses. Participants range from people with physical disabilities who want to learn a new leisure skill, to lifelong golfers who have experienced a medical issue that took them out of the game.

The sense of community and emphasis on mentorship are truly at the heart of the program. Longtime participants welcome new golfers with smiles and upbeat attitudes, and share pointers based on their experiences. Some participants may also be having similar life experiences off the course.

Bryan cherishes the relationships he’s built. “The people,” he says. “They’re awesome.”