Jeff Underwood wanted to change the subject. “If you ever wanna kill a conversation at a dinner party or during cocktail hour—talk about disability.”
Underwood, President of The Lakeshore Foundation, shared that advice during his 2012 TED Talk. Rather than speak about Technology, Entertainment, or Design, Underwood reframed the concept as “Thinking Entirely Differently.” TED acolytes might call him a “disruptor.” In his speech (which you can find online), Underwood says that if your environment poses a challenge to what you are capable of physically, then you have a disability.
Both the Lakeshore Foundation and the Rehabilitation Hospital represent another disruption—an environment where those challenges can be more easily met via innovation, research, athletics, and community. Together, these institutions have changed thousands of lives. And with both in the midst of notable anniversaries (the Hospital turned 45 in 2018; the Foundation will be 35 in 2019), their shared history represents not only something to be proud of, but the continuation of a bright future.
Lakeshore’s campus is not a secret—its location conspicuous thanks to signs on Lakeshore and Highway 31. Still, despite its history, the 45 acres at the end of Ridgeway Drive are a mystery to many. “[It] started off as a tuberculosis sanitorium in ,” Underwood says. “And it has been in continuous use in Homewood as a place where people with disability and serious health conditions can go to get better. The property was a gift from local families—so there’s always been a strong element of philanthropy on the campus.”
The Jefferson Tuberculosis Sanatorium became Lakeshore Rehabilitation Hospital in 1973. Soon after, former administrator Michael Stephens decided to focus on his patients’ physical activity as a way of sustaining their long-term health. Everything grew from there: The Foundation, which was once run out of the hospital, moved into its current structure in 2001. In 2017, both the Hospital and the Foundation began multi-million dollar renovations. The former is giving its nearly 100-year-old structure an overall facelift that includes new private and semi-private rooms (they’ll keep their 100-bed capacity). The latter is building new research facilities and more outdoor amenities.
No procedures or surgeries are performed at Lakeshore—it’s strictly rehab. Though they still work with amputees, the focus has shifted to strokes, spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, and hip fractures. The average stay is 12 days—which is intense—but, thanks to advances in therapy, it’s only half of what it would’ve been 20 years ago. “Typically, we perform very well because we measure the function levels of our patients in great detail,” says Hospital CEO Michael Bartell. “Our therapists guide patients toward what their goals should be so they can go home and maximize their independence. So to have that longevity—that same mission—is relatively unique.”
“Our goal is to get the patient home and keep them at home,” says Therapy Director Al Rayburn. The Hospital conducts Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, and, when necessary, Speech Therapy. But something unique to Lakeshore is Music Therapy. Typically used to help patients with psychological issues, staff therapist Wesley Hyde has found clever ways to use music in helping patients regain control of their limbs, correct their gait, and treat pulmonary issues. “In acute care, patients get a device that they suck into, and it’s supposed to expand lung capacity. It’s really boring,” says Rayburn. “[Hyde] uses harmonicas. When patients get ready to discharge, a harmonica is issued to them. So they can take it home to play music, but it’s really helping their lung capacity.”
While the Hospital and the Foundation are kindred spirits, they are distinct enterprises. “If you think of a gearshift,” says Damian Veazey, the Foundation’s Associate Director of Communications, “medical and rehab gets you to neutral. We get you into drive.”
The Lakeshore Foundation began with the Birmingham Chariots—a wheelchair basketball team in search of a court. The sport quickly gained an audience, and the desire for more adaptive sports grew—particularly swimming, track, and aerobics. So, in 1984, the Lakeshore Foundation was formed to put all these activities under one roof. It also became a center for community, advocacy, and education.
Today the Lakeshore Foundation has grown well beyond its modest ambitions. Those who come here are not patients, but members. A variety of classes and activities are available to members (and their families) all year long, including aquatics, wheelchair sports, archery, a rock climbing wall, and aerobics. “To a certain extent, we are helping people deal with a new chapter in their lives,” says Underwood. “They need to find a new way to do something, a new way to stay active. or even develop new social relationships in order to stay active in their new situation.”
In 2008, the Foundation began a research collaborative with UAB, studying the long-term outcomes of its members, which has led to better care and the development of new therapies. The Foundation also continues to broaden its reach with programs for children, senior citizens, and members of the military. For the latter, the Foundation started Lima Foxtrot—a series of programs and camps that have helped over 3,000 servicemen and women who were wounded in combat.
In 2003, the Foundation became an official training site for both Olympic and Paralympic athletes. It’s also the home of the USA Wheelchair Rugby team, also known as “Murderball.” “Lakeshore is truly unique,” says Chuck Aoki, a two-time Paralympic Rugby medalist, who trains in Birmingham several times a year. “Its quality is unparalleled—in not just the U.S. but the entire world. We’re obviously treated really well there, but it’s really just an amazing facility for any athlete with a disability. Not just the elite level athletes, but for the youth and adult programs.”
“People who go from being physically fit—physically capable—to suffering or developing a debilitating disease, you know they’ve had a dramatic change in their physical well-being,” says Gary Pate, who’s on staff with USA Wheelchair Rugby. “Unfortunately, experiencing a change in your physical well-being can sometimes shut you out of other things. There’s a tendency to kind of close in a little bit.”
He would know: Pate, a retired judge who left the bench in 2011, injured his spine in a rock climbing accident in 2004. His recovery involved the use of a brace and a walker, but it was his time at the Lakeshore Foundation that healed him the most. “There’s a real sense of community here,” continues Pate. “It becomes not only an important part of members’ lives physically, it’s very holistic. It becomes integral to every part of life. People come, bring their lunch, socialize, do a workout: They’re just here with their friends.”
Pate readily admits that he’s one of those people. Gregarious and inviting, he lights up talking about the place—making it easy to see why he’s become so attached to it. Not only does work out and take care of the Rugby team but as the father of 4-year-old twins (he met his wife here), the Lakeshore Foundation has become an essential part of his family life. “It’s great for me to raise my kids in an environment like this,” says Pate. Where everybody is accepted.”
It’s here that I’m reminded of Underwood’s TED talk. There’s a slight quiver in his voice at the beginning, which I assume is nerves. But by the end, you can tell that talking about his work at the Foundation—where he’s been for 27 years—seems to affect him emotionally as well. When asked, he doesn’t deny that’s the case.
“All you have to do is walk around the building and see people who are struggling with all kinds of things,” says Underwood. “But they’re not bitter. It’s a very upbeat positive place. So sometimes when you’re talking about seeing people overcome challenges and succeed, there’s emotion associated with that. It can be something that’s very emotional to talk about—in a very positive way.”