March 15, 2016
A grilled cheese sandwich may not come to top of mind when thinking of remedies for recovery from a stroke.
Yet, that’s what Carlos Valdes, 51, of New Hyde Park, pointed to when asked to summon up specifics of happy moments in his life.
Valdes was a participant in Glen Cove Hospital’s Happiness Is . . . Project, aimed at empowering those in rehabilitation for traumatic brain injuries and helping them set down, even for a short while, “the heavy baggage” of their conditions, said Merav deGuzman, supervisor of recreational therapy.
Valdes, who suffered a stroke in July 2015, credits the project — and the 17-year-old volunteer who helped cook it up — with picking up his spirits and helping him complete “my journey to recovery.”
“When you are paralyzed, everything stops . . . I found myself incapable of doing anything,” said Valdes, who headed back to work in September, at a new job as a laboratory supervisor at Long Island Jewish Medical Center.
The project was launched about a year ago after volunteer Quentin Palone asked if he could increase involvement beyond roles that included playing games and transporting patients. Since his freshman year at Chaminade High School, Palone, now a senior, has volunteered on Saturdays with the recreational therapy team.
With a talent for drawing — his mother, Pamela Palone, of Glen Head, says that as a child he created comic books for his siblings — Palone asked deGuzman if they could find a way for him to use his artistic abilities to benefit patients.
With some brainstorming back and forth, the two developed the approach of his asking patients the question “What makes you happy?” and then from the answers, creating a sketch that patients could transfer to squares of cloth and then paint.
In some cases, the patients got varying degrees of help from staff therapists. The squares, representing happy moments from 20 patients, are now assembled into a quilt-like mural that will eventually be hung in the therapy unit.
In Valdes’ case, happiness was the vision of a well-cooked grilled cheese sandwich, along with dominoes, both of which are on his mural square.
For patients, it was a multistep process, stretching over several days, deGuzman said, involving discussion, sometimes drilling down in search of specific and “vivid images.” With some patients understandably experiencing depression, frustration, anxiety, the idea was to reinforce that happiness does exist, to give them a sense of control and to help keep them fighting.
Many patients, she said, spoke of the experience being “uplifting, inspiring and enjoyable when they didn’t expect to feel joy.”
Other images of happy moments included activities around the home, such as gardening, cooking and barbecuing, Palone said, as well as trips to Venice, Miami Beach, and the pyramids. A favorite of his, as he shares in the pleasure, is the image of the New York Islanders, Palone said.
Also skilled in math and science, Palone has his sights set on becoming a physician, and expects to hear by the end of this month from the various schools where he’s applied.
His big take-away from his volunteer experience, he says, is seeing how “things like art and music can actually help people heal” and “how much control over the body the brain has.”
DeGuzman says she plans to continue the project after Palone moves on, and has an eye out for other volunteer candidates with his skills — drawing included.