West Texas Rehab Turns No One Away


In April, Jamie Thomas noticed that her son Hunter, now 2, was having some difficulties. Taking the advice of her sister, Thomas consulted with a pediatrician.


A series of referrals — after Thomas herself did some fairly extensive research on autism and sensory processing disorder — eventually led her to the West Texas Rehabilitation Center, which treats more than 500 children and adults with physical disabilities and/or communication or hearing disorders daily.

Today, after extensive therapy, things are — to say the least — much better for Hunter and the rest of his family, Thomas said. He now goes to the WTRC twice a week for occupational therapy and once a week for physical therapy.


"Before, we couldn't even go in public without a total meltdown," Jamie Thomas recalled. "We can do more outings in public now because we're more equipped to handle them, and he's (Hunter) been given some tools to help him with that."

It's great progress, she said.


"We went from not being able to understand him or barely able to get any words out of him (and dealing with) major aggression," she said.

Now, through both speech and sign language, Hunter has "definitely come a long way in being able to communicate his wants and needs to us," Thomas said.


As essential as Hunter's care has been, one of the WTRC's core policies — namely, that finances should never be a barrier to care — has been equally as important to his success so far, his mother said.

"We qualified for the sponsor program because of our income, and without that, we would be really struggling with being able to pay," Thomas said. "We wouldn't be able to."


Thomas' husband just got out of the military, she said, which means he lost his government health insurance.

"We have to use a different insurance, and it's a big difference (in cost)," said Thomas, who has three other children. "Being able to be part of the sponsor program where we don't have to worry about it has been a tremendous help."


Thomas said she is "so glad" that WTRC has such a program.

"It's great that they have those options for families who have low income, so that anyone can essentially be qualified and not feel like they can't help their child," she said.


Kristy Roach, assistant director of pediatrics and a speech language pathologist with the West Texas Rehabilitation Center, said that such stories wouldn't be possible without the help the organization receives through various community fundraisers, such as its upcoming annual telethon.

"The money that's donated to The Rehab, we use a lot of that money to pay for patient care," she said. "So if a patient needs therapy and their insurance doesn't cover therapy — or if they don't have insurance and can't pay for it — then that money enables them to receive the services they need."


And despite a poor economy, the past five telethons conducted by the WTRC have been "among our best," said Woody Gilliland, the center's president and chief executive officer.

"I think it's because people believe in our mission and what we do and want to support it," he said.



In 1953, the seeds of what would become the West Texas Rehabilitation Center were planted.


No one could have foreseen just how large it might grow, though the dreams of Shelley Smith, the center's first physical therapist — and its longtime and perhaps most famous executive director — were, in certain respects, lofty.

Starting out with Smith himself and 17 patients in a classroom at Bonham Elementary School, the West Texas Rehabilitation Center now offers a variety of physical, speech, occupational and other care, with an annual budget of $18.4 million.


With facilities in Abilene, San Angelo and Ozona, the whole is a mighty tree compared with Smith's initial, single sprout.

Eliminating disorders, if possible, or reducing/easing disabilities to the greatest extent, are the center's overarching goals. The ultimate hope of such care is to retrain patients to be able to achieve their maximum potential and live a "self-sufficient and fulfilling life," according to the center's website.


The policy of turning no one away has deep roots in the nonprofit's history.

Smith, who obtained his degree in 1951 with the idea of becoming an athletic trainer, worked with polio patients at Hermann Hospital in Houston during his training. He saw a long train of people from West Texas having to make the trek to Houston to get treatment.


And he noticed something even more disturbing.

"I noticed that only the wealthy got first-rate service and treatment," Smith is quoted as saying in an official history on the center's website. "The middle- and lower-income people would end up in hock for the rest of their lives."


That wasn't right, Smith decided, an understanding that galvanized him and helped forge the center's core philosophies, including the policy that no one should be turned away if they can't pay.

Today, the center prides itself on helping people of all socioeconomic levels, CEO Gilliland said.


"We're everyone's Rehab," he said.

And the West Texas Rehabilitation Center has managed to keep extending its care to all despite a health care climate characterized by a decline in reimbursements and bumps in the cost of business, Gilliland said.


"The ability to continue to do that is what sets the center apart from other health care providers," he said. "We're able to that because of our donor support — second- and third-generation donors in some cases."



Initially known as the Taylor County Society for Crippled Children, the organization's name was changed in 1956 to the West Texas Rehabilitation Center to better describe the scope of services offered.

Today, the center has grown into a nationally respected program with about 250 full-time staff members providing outpatient rehabilitation care.


The full spectrum of care offered by the WTRC now encompasses physical therapy, speech/language pathology, orthotics and prosthetics, occupational therapy, audiology/hearing aid services, employer services, diagnostic clinics, family support clinics and pediatric services.

The center does not impose geographic limits on its services, and although the majority of patients are served by its Abilene, San Angelo or Ozona locations, many others benefit from outreach programs that allow treatment staff to travel throughout the Concho Valley and Big Country, according to its website.


"We continue to look at specialty areas through continuing education requirements that would meet unmet needs in this community," Gilliland said, adding that like any health care organization, the Rehab Center "continue(s) to evolve."

In Abilene, the Rehab Center recently moved its orthotics and prosthetics efforts to a new location next door to its headquarters on Hartford Street, and has renovated space for a special exercise program to help adult therapy patients maintain the ability they have gained through that work.


Scott Jameson, director of orthotics and prosthetics, works with patients needing artificial limbs or orthopedic bracing. In Abilene, three practitioners, including Jameson, see patients. The department also has a full-time technical staff.

"Most of what we do, we make in-house, so we have full fabrication on-site," said Jameson, who splits his time between Abilene and San Angelo.


Jameson said his work allows him to see "people roll in (in) a wheelchair (who are) able to walk out at the end of the day."

"A lot of the time, we're the first people to bring hope to someone, especially after an amputation," he said.


Establishing a long-term relationship with patients is especially rewarding for Jameson, he said.

"Even the people who are successful, we're always trying to make them more successful," he said. "It's a relationship. Our patients really become a part of your life."


And like others, Jameson said he was grateful for the organization's policies on payment.

"It really kind of just frees us up to take care of people," he said.


Children, as they have since the beginning, remain a big part of the center's day-to-day work, and physical, occupational and speech therapy are offered in the pediatric department, as well as in the adult department, said Roach, the assistant director of pediatrics.

"We actually have 25 therapists, and we see quite a large caseload of children that come through our doors every day," she said.


Many therapists have specialty certifications, she said, ranging from pediatric-certified specialists to those certified in neurodevelopmental treatment approaches.

"And then we treat a wide range of disorders as well, like cerebral palsy, torticollis (a twisted neck in which one's head is tipped to one side while their chin is turned to the other), autism, autism spectrum, language speech delays, spine and growth motor delays," Roach said, among other conditions.


The work can be difficult, but rewarding, she said.

"It's a real ministry, actually, to be able to work with the families and counsel them through just the difficulties of having a child with special needs, and it's just rewarding to see when they're making progress," she said. "When they can actually graduate from therapy, it's just a really great feeling."


Gilliland said he believes that the demand for all services offered by the Rehab Center is greater than ever.

"On the adult side, (it is) because of our aging population," he said. "On the pediatric side, in Texas about 53 percent of our newborns (are) on Medicaid. Neonatal care is not the same in many cases. There are just a lot of issues folks are dealing with."


Despite the Rehab Center's ongoing success, Gilliland said he worries about the future given current health trends in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates.

He finds himself concerned, he said, whether or not physicians are going "to continue to be involved in both Medicaid and Medicare programs with some of these (current) cuts, and some being talked about."


"In a community like Abilene, it could become more difficult to find physicians who will take Medicaid and Medicare patients," Gilliland said. "That could be a real problem for a few of our families."

It's a potential reality that makes the heavy community support the center enjoys all the more important, he said.



After being involved in a four-wheeler crash in early May, Randall Pace was in the hospital for six months, and in a coma for a little more than a month.


He received care in Abilene and Lubbock before eventually finding his way to the West Texas Rehabilitation Center.

Pace, of Haskell, said he was immediately struck by the sense of caring and emotion among those he found there.


"So I decided that's for sure where I was going to go," he said. "I started the next week or two later, and everybody that I've met and worked with and everything has been extremely nice and just really cares about their jobs and the people they're helping. And that makes a big difference."

Pace, 23, has done a variety of types of physical therapy since he's been going to the Rehab Center, he said, including workouts to build strength in his legs and upper body.


Recently, he has had electric shock therapy on his face.

"I can't smile a full smile, and my left eye is a little lazy and I can't blink it all the way closed," he said, both the result of the crash.


He's seen improvements in both problems since he started the electric shock therapy, which he said is overall "helping out a whole lot" — even though it stings on occasion.

"My goals are to just kind of get my life back to being normal, which it's already on its way," he said. "My main goals are to be able to work and drive again."


Pace said he has an appointment with a doctor in Lubbock the middle of next month. He said he hopes to have built himself up enough that he can be released then.

But the trained welder is hopeful. He has been practicing his craft at home because he has a job waiting for him, he said, when he's ready.


Pace said he owes a huge amount of his present progress to the Rehab Center.

"They really care about their patients," he said, something that he can't say for every place he's had treatment. "They've helped me so much."


Read the Original Article at the Abilene Reporter-News