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Speech Therapist’s Accident Helps Him Relate to Patients

February 4, 2015

DULUTH, Minn. (TNS) -- George Belanger is three times as old as Josh Sorvik, and they've only known each other for a few weeks.

But the banter between the two men bespeaks an easygoing relationship.

When it was suggested that the two hours of therapy Belanger undergoes three days a week at Duluth's St. Luke's hospital is hard work, the 69-year-old Duluth man quickly agreed.

"I get very tired," Belanger said, and then, pointing at Sorvik, spoke in mock severity. "He's really hard on me."

His 23-year-old speech therapist quickly responded, a twinkle in his eye, joking that the blame belonged with a physical therapist.

"I'm really hard on you?" Sorvik said. "You should talk about Rachel. She's got you running up and down the hallway."

No one was running at the moment. The two men sat in wheelchairs in the eighth-floor solarium at St. Luke's, having just completed a one-hour session. Belanger's wife, Mary, sat nearby. Sorvik's service dog, Olivia, lay quietly at his feet.

For Belanger, who is recovering from a mid-brain stroke suffered June 20, the wheelchair is a matter of expedience. He can get around on his feet, he said, but "I walk very slow."

For Sorvik, when he's not in a kayak or hand-cycling, the wheelchair is his way of getting around. It has been since he was paralyzed from the chest down in a skiing accident at Spirit Mountain in March 2009, when he was a senior at Duluth East High School.

Those moments on the ski hill, on what was to be his last run of the season, changed everything.

"It was this shock and awe that all of the sudden my life wasn't turning out the way I thought it was going to," said Sorvik, who has been in his clinical fellowship year at St. Luke's since last July.

Belanger's stroke was almost as sudden. The retired welder was not at risk for a stroke, Mary Belanger said. He didn't have high blood pressure, didn't have high cholesterol, didn't have atrial fibrillation, wasn't a smoker and wasn't overweight.

He felt fine on that Friday morning, George said, until he bent down while talking with Mary in their backyard about 11:30 a.m. When he straightened up, he told her, "Whoa, I've got double vision," she said. "And then his speech started to go," Mary said. "And then I had a hard time walking him back to the house."

With help from a Postal Service letter carrier, Mary got him into their car and drove him to the emergency room at St. Luke's. George remained in the hospital for three weeks, receiving inpatient therapy.

After returning home, he had a month of in-home therapy. Since then, the couple has made the thrice-weekly trips to St. Luke's for physical, occupational and speech therapy.

Sorvik, who was meeting with George for the eighth time last week, is his most recent speech therapist and is careful to give his predecessors credit for his patient's progress.

The progress is impressive. He's a little hard to understand at first, but he gets the words out in proper order. That's a big change, Mary said.

"The speech (therapy) has helped an awful lot," she said. "All of our friends, everybody that talks to George, say how much he's improved."

That Sorvik uses a wheelchair makes no difference to him one way or the other, George said. But Sorvik said he thinks it may make a difference in the way he approaches patients.

"I think it's helped me to empathize to a certain degree, to appreciate how quickly life can change," he said.

Kari Bulthuis has seen that empathy at work, she said.

Bulthuis, a speech-language pathologist for Essentia Health's Miller-Dwan Rehabilitative Services, worked with Sorvik for a short time after his skiing accident. "(I) hit my head pretty good," Sorvik explained, so Bulthuis was helping to determine whether his cognitive abilities were intact.

They were.

"As messed-up as I was before, I'm still that messed up," Sorvik joked. "My hit on the head didn't fix anything, but it didn't break anything either."

But seeing the way Bulthuis did her job sparked his interest in speech therapy, Sorvik said, and he also figured it was something he could do in a wheelchair. Although he missed two months of his senior year at East, he graduated with his class and began his studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth that fall.

Credits earned while still in high school allowed Sorvik to complete his undergraduate degree in three years, and he went on to earn his master's degree in speech-language pathology in May of this year, also at UMD. Along the way, he was reunited with Bulthuis, spending 12 weeks as an intern for her.

"Having experienced rehab himself, he's more able to connect with patients than any of us can," Bulthuis said of Sorvik. "He'll say, 'I remember my first days here. It was really hard to do that. But just keep working on it; it will get easier.'"

Sorvik said he's still learning a lot from the other speech therapists at St. Luke's, and he was careful to say that all the therapists he has known understand what it means to have a life-altering accident, even if they haven't been through it themselves.

Still, his experience has helped him understand when a patient has reached his or her limit, Sorvik said.

"I had those days when I could not go further," he explained. "And I couldn't take anymore."

He was grateful, Sorvik said, "to have therapists that were able to understand that and appreciate that and let me be in that moment."

Just before the couple left, George Belanger briefly put all kidding aside.

"He's great," Belanger said of Sorvik.

The respect is mutual.

"George has got a unique spirit about him that fits really well with rehab," Sorvik said later. "I think to a certain degree there needs to be a healthy realization of what's happening, a good work ethic -- and then the ability to laugh and laugh at yourself is so important."

(Source: crescent-news.com)


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