“The first time we took Susan to a horse show, she sat right up next to the railings,” said Holly Coburn, Day Program Services Counselor for MHA. “There was a horse right beside her and I could see that she was saying something. I couldn’t hear what it was that she was whispering, but the horse kept moving its eyes to see who was talking. I sensed that something special was going on. There was definitely a connection being made.”

Susan Wolfe likes horses and they like her. “Because I have lost so much of my memory, I am learning things about myself all over again. When I saw the horses and spoke to them it triggered something,’ said Susan. Suddenly, I remembered.  I remembered that I like horses and I have since I was a young girl.” It was a first for Susan.

Four years ago, Susan suffered multiple strokes that affected her right side and much of her memory. Initially, she was unable to speak or care for herself, but motivated by her unbridled work ethic and aided by her Speech and Occupational therapies, Susan has begun to recover her ability to speak. She still needs help with activities of daily living, so recently she moved into a newly-built MHA residence for people with an Acquired Brain Injury (ABI).

Stroke is one example of an ABI and the newly-built MHA residence in Ludlow where Susan lives with three other women was designed specifically to address the needs of people living with ABI. The home includes accessible bathrooms, counter heights that accommodate wheelchairs and other thoughtful features. “It used to be a Christmas tree farm,” Susan explained. “I like the quiet outside. It’s so peaceful there.”

Holly started working one-on-one with Susan this past May, when the new Resource Center day program opened. “I’ve been with MHA about three years, working in different programs including the Severe Head Injury Program, so the ABI program is a good fit for me.”

“Everything is new here, so we’re learning together,” said Holly. “We develop a weekly calendar of activities to keep our participants active and hands-on. There’s an arts and crafts segment with fun projects that also focus on sensory skills, eye/hand coordination or strengthening memory. There’s a multipurpose room where we watch exercise videos while we move, use stretch bands or play catch with a ball.  We have some fun and fitness games we play outside as well. There’s computer time that lets people look up things that interest them while they learn to use a computer again. There’s even a sensory room with musical instruments and kinetic sand. Everything is participant-driven. They pick what they want to do and we help.”

This fall, Occupational and Physical Therapy students will begin interning at the MHA Day Program bringing with them additional resources to further support participants’ physical strength, as well as their speech.

Susan continues to make good progress in her recovery, and somehow horses have helped. “That first time I saw Susan with horses her eyes just lit up,” Holly recalled. “It was the first time she could tell me something important from her past, about how she loved horses as a kid and how as an adult spent her Saturdays riding. We take her whenever there is a horse show in the area. When horses come near, she whispers to them and they hear her.” But Susan doesn’t always whisper. She’s quick and eager to speak her mind. There’s a reason for that.

Susan has been married twice. Both men abused her physically and emotionally. For most of her adult life, Susan was denied the opportunity to communicate her needs. To express her own wishes. Working with a speech therapist five days a week for almost a year has yielded great results. Not only speaking for herself, but for others as well. “There were a lot of ladies in the nursing home who had strokes and couldn’t talk. I would stick up for them,” she said. “I know it is frustrating when people want to say something and their speech is not at a point where they can say what they want to. I could read their eyes and help others know what these ladies wanted to communicate because I was like them before.”

Susan has progressed to where she now gets into a wheelchair herself, gets ready for bed herself, and with some help, showers and dresses herself. Three years ago she could do none of these things, but her single-minded determination keeps her moving forward. She tells her staff at MHA, “I’m not ever going to give up.” And it’s loud and clear!