In Sickness and In Health: Therapists at TIRR Memorial Hermann Greater Heights Lift Spirits with a Surprise Anniversary Fiesta

By Alexandra Becker

On July 26, 2020, David Fields’ eyes were focused on the hill ahead of him, his feet fixed to the pedals of his bike. He was less than a mile away from his home in Grand Cane, La., training hard for his third deployment to Iraq just a few short months away.

But suddenly, out of nowhere, a car hit him straight on.

David was rushed to a local trauma unit where he was treated for his injuries and stabilized. He later learned that the driver of the car had been blinded by the summer sun—that she never even saw David or his bicycle. He also learned about the severity of his injuries, and that he would no longer be deploying with his team come November.

The active duty Louisiana Army National Guard Sergeant was devastated. But he was also determined—determined to recover, to walk again, and to serve his country overseas once more. So in August, he was admitted to TIRR Memorial Hermann-Greater Heights, where a group of therapists would work closely with him to help him regain mobility, cognitive function, and the ability to speak, chew and swallow.

It was a long road ahead, but David had specialized care and he worked hard. After a few months, however, he began to grow discouraged. Progress, albeit steady, was slower than he’d hoped, and his stay at TIRR Memorial Hermann had recently been extended. When Natasha Sangira, one of his physical therapists, inquired about his recent lack of energy, he said he was disappointed that he wouldn’t be home to celebrate his eleventh wedding anniversary with his wife, Ramel.

So Sangira hatched a plan to cheer him up: the team would throw them an anniversary dinner there at TIRR Memorial Hermann.

“I had noticed the weekend before that he seemed down, that he wasn’t as motivated during therapy,” Sangira said. “He couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. We knew that we couldn’t change the fact that he couldn’t deploy, and we couldn’t change the fact that he had all these deficits he was working to overcome. The only thing we could do was try to make him happier.”

David and Ramel’s anniversary fell on Oct. 10, so the team planned the event for the following day, when his wife was expected to visit. Throughout the week, his therapists secretly worked together to pull off the big surprise while being careful to adhere to all the required COVID-19 precautions.

Nicole Klasen, his speech language pathologist, took the opportunity during his therapy sessions to gain insight into his past anniversaries. What did David and his wife typically do to celebrate? She learned they loved Mexican food—fajitas to be exact—so Klasen put in an order at a local restaurant. The whole team chipped in to pay for it.

David’s occupational therapist, Nisarga Upadhye, worked with him to make a card.

Brittany Jelks, a physical therapist who was working that weekend, helped coordinate decorations. During lunch, she went down to the break room to enlist other clinicians working that day to help with a special send-off. Rehab tech Dolores Gonzales purchased decorations and decked out the gym in their honor.

When Ramel arrived, she had no idea what was in store.

“After I got there, one of the physical therapists came into the room and said she was going to take him down for a therapy session,” Ramel recalled. “I just followed them down the hall and when the double doors opened, there were people lining the hallways and they were all wishing us a happy anniversary.”

The couple entered a room with silver streamers on the doorway. Inside, there were balloons and other decorations and a table set up with fajitas and all the fixings. For dessert, Klasen had picked up sopapillas.

“We set it up so it looked a little bit like a restaurant,” Jelks said. “We tried to move as much equipment out of the room as possible, too—we just wanted to give them a moment where they didn’t have to think about what was going on and could just enjoy each other’s company.”

The surprise fiesta was a success.

“We got the biggest smile from David when he sat down at the table to eat dinner with his wife,” Sangira said. “And the team saw a different side of him the following week. It definitely turned his emotions around, he was so happy.”

It’s the type of dedicated care TIRR Memorial Hermann therapists work to provide to each and every one of their patients.

“I try to treat patients like they’re my family members,” Jelks said. “We get to go home every day after we leave work, and sometimes you don’t realize how lonely patients can feel in that room, missing their grandchildren’s birthdays and their anniversaries and all these big milestones. So we do what we can to make them feel special, to make sure they know that they aren’t here alone.”

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Ali Vise