Tap, Tap, Row - VA Providence Healthcare System
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VA Providence Healthcare System


Tap, Tap, Row

The author, Amber Vaillancourt, front and center, with Providence VA Row Cats members and coaches at 426 Fitness in Warren, R.I., March 10, 2015. (Providence VA Medical Center photo by Sid Petros, WaterRower)

The author, Amber Vaillancourt, front and center, with Providence VA Row Cats members and coaches at 426 Fitness in Warren, R.I., March 10, 2015. (Providence VA Medical Center photo by Sid Petros, WaterRower)

By Amber Vaillancourt, Bllind Rehabilitation Out-Patient Sepcialist
Thursday, March 19, 2015

Providence Veterans Get Oars Wet in New All-Blind Vets' Crew Team by Amber Vaillancourt, blind rehabilitation outpatient specialist, Providence VA Medical Center

It may not be the Providence River or even One Hundred Acre Cove, but one group of Veterans has turned the rowing studio at 426 Fitness in Warren, R.I., into their own personal body of water. This is not a group of college-aged rowers, or even a group of Veterans who all served their country within the last 20 years. No, they are not your average team of athletes; they have specialized skills, and are able to work in incredibly challenging environments.

So who are these Veterans, what is their common thread? Well, none of them have ever rowed crew before and they are all legally blind.

The Providence VA Row Cats is the new team out of Providence. I started working with the Department of Veterans Affairs last year with the very strong belief that recreation can and should be a major component of a person's rehabilitation journey when it comes to vision loss. Being hired by the VA was like a dream come true, because it was known to me, and others in the vision services field, that there are no services comparable to those at the VA. The resources available from the federal government via the VA for vision care, the association with the medical treatment model, the partnership with others in a VA hospital, and the acknowledgement that vision rehabilitation can be provided in a therapeutic way, similar to physical or occupational therapy, and the support and opportunity to do so, are all a dream come true for a little ol' peripatologist -- also known as an orientation and mobility specialist -- like me.

Now, I am so proud to be a BROS (a blind rehabilitation outpatient specialist) and have some of the very best patients in the world. They are so resilient and motivated; nothing can stop them from pursuing their goals. They have been so brave in their lives, and that bravery and courage is their foundation for living their best life, not passing or settling, but living. As I say to my Veteran patients, "Doing your thing."

Recreation contributes to a person's overall well-being, physical and emotional health, and social and community connections. For a person with vision loss, fighting off isolation and feeling like you have lost your independence can be some of the toughest challenges.

The chance that I was given by Paul Stephen Varszegi last November was to provide him with Veteran patient athletes to make up a rowing team. I would also handle the team's logistics, which included things like transportation, obtaining clearance from doctors, scheduling of appointments and mobility training, as well as any group support in terms of vision adaptations and accessibility, much like a manager. Paul and his organization, Veterans Rowing & Kayaking Inc., would line up coaches, a boat house, sponsors, meals after practices and equipment. With support from the Providence VA Medical Center's vision impairment services team coordinator, Adele Geringer, my supervisor, Anita Solomon, the voluntary services director, Donna Russillo, and recreation therapy assistant Henry Rea, we covered the VA side of responsibilities.

men and women on rowing machines with on-lookers

Providence VA Row Cats team members and coaches participating in indoor rowing practice during a Providence VA Row Cats training session at 426 Fitness in Warren, R.I., Feb. 10, 2015. (Providence VA Medical Center photo by Amber Vaillancourt)

Paul identified two dynamite coaches, Deb and Patrick Sullivan, who also recently opened a community boathouse in Barrington, R.I., and had excellent ties to 426 Fitness in Warren, R.I., a local facility that houses a gorgeous rowing studio packed full with WaterRower rowing machines. Paul, who had helped to create the first rowing team through Veterans Rowing & Kayaking Inc. last year out of West Haven, Conn., was able to extend sponsorships from the Rhode Island Lions Sight Foundation, corporations like Subway and Boston Market, and also smaller, more local companies, like Kelly’s Four Plus Granola, WaterRower and Concept2, to support the, now, two rowing teams.

Paul even accommodated a wish I had bestowed upon him: I wanted our rowing program to additionally feature an indoor season to provide my Veterans with something they could participate in during more than just the fair-weather months in New England; I wanted them to learn how to use rowing machines, because that would enable them to practice the sport year-round, and on their own if they wanted to.

I think it is important at this point to acknowledge all of the cardiologists, nurses, counselors and primary care physicians, both within and outside of the VA, who engaged in conversations with me about the program and their patients, and who were receptive to the ties between quality of life and overall health, and how recreation can impact both of these things.

three women on rowing machines

Barbara Henry, left, a blind rehabilitation program volunteer, Veteran Ginny Beltz, middle, Judy Cohen, right, spouse of another Veteran participant, and Veteran Jack Ringland, in the back, practice underhand rowing, completing a stroke that works muscles similar to a bicep curl, during a Providence VA Row Cats training session at 426 Fitness in Warren, R.I., March 10, 2015. (Providence VA Medical Center photo by Amber Vaillancourt)

We are now in the inaugural first season of the Providence VA Row Cats, the all-blind Veterans rowing team. As I prepare for our next team training, I think about our successes so far. The biggest one feels like having lost only one Tuesday training to the snow. Being able to launch with all the snow that has fallen on southern New England this winter has been a victory all on its own!

Another victory is that each practice has brought both returning and new members, and it appears that this trend will continue. Athletes taking breaks from the team, and returning after addressing other health issues, shows commitment and dedication, but also how much these Veteran athletes look forward to this opportunity. I was lucky enough to attend a Home Based Primary Care staff meeting recently and mentioned the rowing team. The support, interest-based questions and cheers I received from these colleagues -- most of whom I only knew as a last name from a note -- honestly had me feeling a little choked up and even more revved about this team.

The team also has the chance to serve as a vehicle for delivering knowledge about vision loss, not only within the VA and Veteran community, but also in our medical center, the city of Providence and the rest of the "sighted world." Row Cats Veterans can serve as ambassadors of vision loss and blindness within our community, thanks to the interest and support of the public, and all those who made this program possible. The Providence VA Row Cats are a shining example for all of us that what you can accomplish is limited only by what you are brave enough to try.


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