Our People in Profile: QEII staff member Andrea King believes recreation therapy is 'important piece of the health care puzzle'

Andrea King is a recreation therapist in neurology and neurosurgery at the Halifax Infirmary (Kristen Lipscombe/NSHA).
Andrea King is a recreation therapist in neurology and neurosurgery at the Halifax Infirmary (Kristen Lipscombe/NSHA).

For Andrea King, working as a recreation therapist (RT) specializing in neuroscience often means connecting with patients using cognitive games and puzzles.

It also means connecting recreation therapy to the overall health care puzzle.

“We do a lot of cognitive games (which) give people the feeling that they still have skill and ability to do something,” said King, a 12-year RT veteran who supervises a team of recreation therapy associates and therapeutic assistants on the neurology and neurosurgery units at the Halifax Infirmary site of the QEII Health Sciences Centre.

“There are a lot of studies on cognition, and doing puzzles is super important.”

At this month’s Therapeutic Recreation Expo, the second annual event held Wednesday, Feb. 20 at the Veterans Memorial Building, King and her colleague Marty Rizzo, a recreation therapy associate, ran the Neuroscience Recreation Therapy booth, where they had several cognitive and physical games available to play, including the most popular activity of the day – the target toss station.

Camp Hill residents and guests alike took turns tossing bean bags at a target board with six different holes to aim for, lined up on the floor several feet in front of them.

That target toss is often used in hospital for stroke patients struggling with apraxia, which means they have decreased motor planning skills, King said, adding that “with lots of practice and repetition … slowly, that will break, and they’ll get that back.”
Many of these patients are facing constant daily challenges, so recreation therapy staff use tools such as target toss to help patients experience small – and often fun – steps forward on the road to recovery.

“What I like about the target toss is that it gives (patients) a chance to see how they’re improving, whether they’re more accurate in their throws or moving further back from the board, so it’s giving them feedback,” King said.

“Our job is to make sure that when they start it, they’re successful – so what hand are we going to use? What is going to be the best strategy?” she explained. “Our biggest goal is success.”

Other “therapeutic interventions” include lending out DVD players and radios, outdoor visits to the Veterans Memorial Garden and organized craft groups.

Also popular is the music listening circle, during which “people will start talking about memories of different songs, or they’ll just start inadvertently start singing along, or someone who can be struggling with their mood and depression and they’re anxious – and the most subtle thing – their hand will start to tap or they might smile; they’re having a moment where they have connected with something, which is just so important.”

Also important are the connections patients feel with each other.

“People are in a common crisis, common situation,” King said, “and the ability to connect with others going through a similar thing is quite powerful.”

Of course, recreation therapy isn’t all fun and games, particularly when working in neuroscience, which means working with patients who have had a significant diagnosis or suffered a major trauma. Some patients demonstrate difficult behaviours due to their brain injuries, which means staff are constantly assessing and monitoring safety, while also trying to help bring back a sense of structure and normalcy to their patients’ lives.

As a result of patient acuity in neurology and neurosurgery, recreation therapy is applied differently than it is to patients in rehabilitation or at a long-term care facility.

“As far as we know, there really isn’t anyone else in Canada doing what we’re doing here,” King said. “I know that there are other places that have rec therapy basically targeted for people just for long-term care; so that people are up, they’re moving; they’re engaged or trying to reduce things like bed sores and depression, but in terms of neurosciences, I haven’t encountered it. It’s a really special population group … with unique needs.”

In order to make patients feel more comfortable, King’s team devotes time getting to know and understand their patients, and also looks a bit different from typical hospital staff.

“We don’t wear uniforms, we don’t wear scrubs,” she explained. “We identify differently as a team member, and because we don’t (look like) that role, patients feel us differently.”

Connecting with patients on a different level is what King loves most about her job.

That passion for connection may have started when the then 21-year-old Halifax native served as a volunteer at the Veterans Memorial Building, where she pushed “Penny the Velveteen rabbit around in a grocery cart full of hay to visit the veterans.”

“What I quickly discovered is that there are some who just wanted to see the rabbit, but most just wanted to connect and talk,” King said. “I really valued that experience.”

As she worked her way through three degrees at Dalhousie University, she came realize that “quality of life was probably what was driving me for my health care (career).”

When she discovered recreation therapy, she knew “this was where I was meant to be. This is where you connect with people on a different level.”

On the importance of recreation therapy to patient care, King said “we come with skills, we come with research, and we come with a variety of things that really do impact the patients’ experience.

“It’s another important piece of the puzzle in health care.”

February is Therapeutic Recreation Month in Canada. Learn more by visiting the Canadian Therapeutic Recreation Association website at https://canadian-tr.org.