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Talking With Susan Wollschlager, RN, Subacute Rehabilitation Program

Special Tree’s nurses are an integral part of the rehabilitation process. Specializing in rehabilitation and post-acute care, our nurses play an active role in helping patients and their families through recovery from brain and spinal cord injury.  Our nurses strive to provide the highest quality care along with compassion, motivation, and hope to help patients achieve the highest quality of life.  

We spoke with Susan Wollschlager, a rehabilitation nurse at Special Tree’s NeuroCare Campus, to learn more about her role and the meaning she finds in her work. 

Q:  What’s a typical day like for you?
: It’s rewarding and goes by so fast!  The first part of my day is focused on medication passing.  The remainder is working with my patients to support their rehabilitation care and treatment. That includes not only the typical functional tasks of what nurse do, but also interacting with patients’ families to support them through the rehabilitation process.  My goal is to make it as best as it can be for my patients as they make progress in their recovery. 

Q:  What do you like about working at Special Tree?
  The patients and my colleagues!  I work with a lot of amazing people.  We work well together and are very supportive of one another.  Special Tree still has that family atmosphere of caring because the Subacute Rehabilitation unit is smaller, but still large enough to offer our patients state-of-the-art therapy and care.  I’ve also really enjoyed learning about rehabilitation therapies and seeing the innovative treatments that Special Tree offers for brain and spinal cord injury rehabilitation.  The treatment modalities have come so far.   Special Tree has also been great about supporting my educational goals, which is a very big part of who I am in my practice.  When I’ve wanted to focus on areas of learning, our Director of Nursing has always gone the extra mile to get me information and has encouraged me to get my certification in rehabilitation nursing.  Special Tree invests in their staff and want them to be their best because that spills over into the best patient care.

Q:  What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
  Seeing patients make gains in their level of independence – whether they’re returning home or progressing to an assisted living situation.  Sometimes it’s the simple things that are most rewarding like when a patient is able to move their hand which they initially couldn’t do or when a patient gets up out of a wheelchair with therapy and starts walking.  It always amazes me to see the fortitude of our patients and to see how hard every patient, family, and clinician works to make strides in their recovery.   I’m inspired by them every single day.

Q:  Why did you want to work in a rehabilitation setting?
  I’d been a nurse in a hospital setting for 30 years and was looking for something new and inspiring.  Working in a rehabilitation setting was a new approach for me in nursing.  I enjoy working closely with respiratory staff, dietitians, physicians, therapists, case managers, and others to provide for clients' day-to-day needs.  I’m continually learning which is what I was also looking for in my nursing career.    Special Tree also has a great reputation for providing excellent rehabilitation services. 

Q: What advice would you give a nurse who’s considering rehabilitation nursing?
  If you’re the type of nurse who likes one-on-one communication then you’ll get that here.  As a rehabilitation nurse you really get to know the patients and families because they’re here for a longer duration.  You’re sharing struggles and successes with them which allows for a relationship to really build.  They become part of your family.  To me that’s what life is all about…being there for one another.

We need caring hearts like yours.  Now hiring RNs, LPNs, and Direct Care staff.  Apply online at 

Special Tree Expands Vocational Rehabilitation Program in Mid-Michigan

The goal of many people recovering from brain injury is returning to work.  Special Tree’s strong commitment to help our clients achieve the best possible employment outcomes is reflected in our wide range of vocational rehabilitation services that focus on each client’s individual goals and job interests.   That’s why we’re so excited about the new enhancements to our Vocational Rehabilitation Program in Mid-Michigan.   We’ve ramped up our program with more specialized services including Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling and Community-Based Employment Enclaves to help even more clients make a smooth transition back to work. 

“Our Vocational Services are an integral part of our outpatient rehabilitation program in Mid-Michigan” said Rene Dell, Associate Director of Vocational Services.  “Our Voc and therapy teams work closely together to provide a multi-disciplinary approach to support clients with a variety of vocational goals -- whether they’re returning to their previous job or exploring other alternative work options.”   

Mid-Michigan Therapy team members Heidi Nadobny and Kelly Hott are heading up the Mid-Michigan Voc program which is based at Special Tree’s NeuroSkills Center in Midland.   In their expanded role as Vocational Rehabilitation Specialists, Heidi and Kelly help clients manage the many aspects of working after an injury, from handling cognitive challenges and job modifications to vocational assessments and work training.  Heidi and Kelly are also developing Mid-Michigan’s Employment Enclaves which provide clients with paid community-based work training and job coaching at local businesses.   

“Our Voc team find an enclave based on each client’s individual needs and interests and then find a community employer willing to have them come as an enclave with job support,” said Rene.  Clients are currently working in community enclaves at the Midland Community Center, a hair salon, Midland Shelter House Resale Shop, and Valley Lanes Entertainment Center.  “Enclaves are a great way for our clients to try out different types of jobs in the community while also strengthening their job readiness skills.”  

Rene added that the Mid-Michigan Voc program will continue to evolve to help clients reach their highest potential.   For example, an in-house job was created for a client at the Midland NeuroSkills Center to develop skills for community-based employment. “We start fresh with each and every person to help them find the best placement for long-term success.” 


Special Tree SLPs help clients “See the Swallow”

Special Tree’s Speech Language Pathologists are using a new high-tech therapy to drastically improve how clients relearn to swallow following a brain injury. The Synchrony Dysphasia Solution is a revolutionary biofeedback device that enables clients to “see” their swallows through the use of virtual reality-enhanced images. Watch as Sarah Kapelczak, SLP, demos the new technology and explains how Synchrony is helping to improve outcomes and quality of life for individuals with Dysphasia.

Special Tree's Innovation Team Brings Great Ideas to Life

Special Tree’s Innovation Team is all about turning our employee’s great ideas into reality.  Whether an idea involves new and productive ways of doing things or meeting the needs of clients, the Innovation Team encourages employees to submit ideas both big and small and provides structured support to bring them to fruition.

Watch this video to see our Innovation Team in action as they take innovative ideas from zero to hero!

Talking Universal Design With OT Bev Zimmerman

To help our clients live as independently as possible, Special Tree’s Occupational Therapists look closely at their living space to make sure it’s safe, functional, and accessible for their needs.  But our OTs go one step further in determining what to modify in a home setting.  Their goal is to create living spaces that work for everyone through Universal Design. 

Universal Design is an inclusive approach to design that creates an accessible and aesthetically pleasing environment for anyone, regardless of ability and age.   OTs like Bev Zimmerman apply Universal Design principals in their home evaluations for clients as well as at Special Tree’s residential homes.   Universal Design requires OTs to earn an advanced Aging in Place Specialist certification (CAPS).  We asked Bev to explain more about Universal Design as it relates to Occupational Therapy.

What is Universal Design?

Universal Design is a concept that makes a living space user-friendly.  It goes beyond the traditional approach of creating a handicap accessible home for someone in a wheelchair to one that’s usable and accessible by everyone that would enter the home.  Universal Design concepts also apply to the long-term use of a home to make sure it continues to meet the needs of all people as they age.  

How does Universal Design make a living space more user-friendly?

Universal Design concepts look at ways to make day-to-day living and home tasks easier and safer for everyone but that also remain largely unnoticeable by a casual observer.  I worked with an architect to use Universal Design in a kitchen remodel at one of our community residences.  Our goal was to create a functional and accessible kitchen that anyone could use with ease.  The kitchen has a wall mounted oven for easy access, light-colored counter surfaces and recessed lighting for increased visibility, a two level countertop and roll out drawers to accommodate clients in wheelchairs, and large handles on cabinets and drawers for clients with impaired fine motor control.  

How does Occupational Therapy relate to Universal Design? 

OT and Universal Design share a lot of common ground.  Both look at making an environment as functional and pleasing as possible.  Occupational Therapists approach a living space from the end-user, taking a client’s physical, cognitive, and sensory limitations into account.  Universal Design provides the concepts for minimizing complexities in living environments so it works everyone.

Some examples of Universal Design at Special Tree's Community Residences:


A Team Approach to Vision Rehabilitation

Vision is more than 20/20.  It’s also our brain’s ability to gather information with our eyes and to process the information we see.  Our brain and eyes work together to help us think, move, and make sense of the world around us.   Because of the close relationship between the brain and vision, many people experience significant vision problems after a brain injury. These visual deficits can interfere with recovery which is why vision therapy is an important part of our clients' overall rehabilitation. We asked OT Patricia Laws to explain more about the benefits of vision therapy and how Special Tree's team-approach helps to maximize visual function. 

At Special Tree, we take a collaborative approach to vision rehabilitation in our adult, teen and pediatric clients.  By collaborating our occupational therapy services and vision therapy, we maximize service and performance skills with each client. Special Tree OTs work closely with our consulting optometrist Dr. Haba, who specializes in behavorial optometry and vision therapy, to develop customize treatment plans that promote optimal visual function.

OTs provide thorough evaluations and treatment to re-store or improve performance skills in areas including visual perceptual skills, visual motor/movement skills, visual cognitive processing skills, neuro visual postural therapy and development treatment approaches in sessions.   Treatment approaches include:a combination of specialized lenses, prisms, low vision aides, and vision therapy activities designed to create new neurological pathways.  We are able to collaboratively treat a person experiencing many different symptoms that may be related to their visual dysfunction, this including but not limited to performance with reading, reading comprehension, visual attention/concentration, depth perception, handwriting, motor coordination, eye hand coordination, sports, leisure tasks, driving skills, and topographical orientation and navigation skills that are vital to function and engage in their daily environments whether it is school, work or home.  

Special Tree Expands Continuum With Home Health Care

Special Tree is excited to announce Home Health Care, a new home-based program to help individuals make a smooth transition home.  Whether a person wants to return home or to live on their own in the community, Special Tree's Home Health Care team provides customized care and support to help them achieve their goals for more independence.  Special Tree’s Cortney Richert explains how Home Health Care is helping individuals to head home with confidence.

What is the goal of Special Tree’s Home Health Care services?
Our goal is to assist individuals that have experienced life altering circumstances, to live as independently as possible, while maximizing their potential. This is accomplished through a collaboration with the entire rehabilitation team and natural supports.  The program provides individuals with an opportunity to reach higher independence, and often return home with family and/or our Home Health Care services.  We support their goals for indpendence by meeting them where they are.

How do you determine if someone is a good fit for Home Health Care?

Determining an appropriate fit is a team effort in deciding whether or not a person will receive home care services. Our typical client is someone who has been working toward the goal of independence, and has set specific goals in order to live on their own and/or with support from our team.  Setting and tracking specific goals, assists the client, their family, other pertinent team members with understanding what is expected of them once they live more independently, and what supports will be needed from our Home Health Care team.

What is your role in Home Health Care?
​My role is to ensure quality care by providing necessary supports through our Home Health Care team members. This includes recruiting, screening and hiring top quality staff; providing ongoing training, supervision, and medical appointment management; and includes a 24 hour on-call emergency line to assist clients and staff.Can you give an example of how Home Health Care helps clients achieve more independence?.

What sets Special Tree’s Home Health Care apart?

Special Tree Home Health Care team members are recruited and screened in order to determine the highest level of excellence.  Team members participate in extensive instruction and on-the-job the training that is specific to working with folks with TBIs and SCIs. Our staff receive the same high quality training as do Special Tree’s Residential staff.  Additionally, team members receive continued education each month during staff meetings, and other required learning objectives.

How do you determine the right mix of supports to help clients achieve success in a home-setting?

We work closely with a clinical team, including Occupational Therapists, Psychologists, and others when determining what supports are necessary, and what the client should be striving to accomplish on their own. Most clients we serve are working every single day to reach a higher level of independence, and we adjust the types and levels of supports that are provided as clients progress in order to meet their changing needs. 

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Progress comes every day, even if by the smallest margins, as our team encourages clients to build upon their successes.  Most of our clients have truly followed the continuum of care, by beginning at our Neuro Care Center, and working toward their treatment goals, and then returning to their own residence.  We are rewarded when we see our clients become more independent, society-contributing individuals within their home and community.

To learn more, pleast contact Jessica Briggs at (734)323-6991 or


Special Tree Named a Top Workplace by the Detroit Free Press

Special Tree is proud to be named a Top Workplace by the Detroit Free Press for the seventh straight year.  Special Tree was ranked #24 for Top Employers in the Large-Sized category. The Top Workplaces are based on employee feedback via a survey conducted by Workplace Dynamics, LLP, a leading research firm on organizational health and employee engagement.   The survey seeks to find if employees feel inspired in their workplace, and if they are given the opportunity and support needed to do great things. 

“We are committed to providing the best rehabilitation and care and know that it starts with having a great team,” said Special Tree CEO Joe Richert.  “Our team members take pride in helping our clients achieve the best outcomes possible throughout their recovery.  We’re dedicated to providing a positive work environment and ongoing continuing education for our staff and are thrilled they responded so favorably to the survey.” 

Here’s what our team members had to say about working at Special Tree:

“We are a team that values and appreciates diversity. As a team, we work together to go above and beyond to continue to improve the work that we are doing and truly impact lives in a positive way.”

“That I make a difference in someone's life.”

“The positivity that surrounds Special Tree. The work is very rewarding.”

The Detroit Free Press published the complete list of Top Workplaces on November 20, 2016.  For more information about the Top Workplaces lists and Workplace Dynamics, please visit

Role of Respiratory Therapists is a Matter of Life and Breath

It's Respiratory Care Week and a great time to shine a spotlight on our Respiratory Therapists (RTs) and the life-saving care they provide to clients throughout their rehabilitation and recovery.  

Our highly-skilled RTs provide 24/7 care to clients with many levels of respiratory support needs in the Subacute Rehabilitation Program at Special Tree's NeuroCare Campus in Romulus.  For many clients that means RTs work closely with an interdisciplinary team to successfully wean them off a ventilator to restore independent breathing.  For those clients who are dependent on a ventilator long-term, RTs are focused on helping them to live a more active, enjoyable life.  We asked RT Danille Jones (far right in photo) to explain more about her role at Special Tree and the big impact that Respiratory Therapy has on a client's independence and quality of life.

What specialized respiratory care does Special Tree provide?
As an RT, our goal is always to rehabilitate our clients to a safe and maintainable point of independence.  To achieve that, we provide many levels of specialized care at the NeuroCare Campus including ventilator support management, airway maintenance, CPAP/BIPAP support, Oxygen support, Vest therapy, Cough assist, and administration of respirtory treatments.  We have a weaning protocaol for our trach clients to progress toward decannulation, and for our ventilator clients to wean successfully from the ventilator.

For clients who are on a ventilator long-term, how do RTs help them to live a more active and enjoyable life?
We want our vent dependent clients to LIVE and enjoy things in the community.   We use ventilators that are based for home care which are small, easy to travel with and are able to run on battery for up to 8-hours.  Clients on vents are able to go outside on the trails, fishing in the pond, attend activities, got to the therapy gym, and truly engage in daily life.  We take vent clients to sporting events, museums, movies, and family gatherings.  We work closely with Recreational Therapy and the Activities teams to plan and coordinate outings and events to successfully engage vent clients in the community. 

What other therapies help support clients on a ventilator?
Special Tree as a whole embraces an interdisciplinary approach to the rehabilitation process.  RTs work with each client's therapy team to help them achieve their goals.  For example, RTs work very closely with Speech Therapy to monitor diet and signs of aspiration, speaking vale use, and capping trials.   Physical therapy is also essential to a vent client's rehabilitation.  Vent clients benefit greatly from gym-based therapy including the tilt table which puts them in a semi to full upright position which is great for pulmonary hygiene, lung expansion. muscle stimulation, and to help prevent pneumonia and atelectasis.  The therapy team is also diligent with feeback on the client's respiratory status during therapy sessions.  It truly is an interdisciplinary approach from every end of care! 

Why did you choose to become a Respiratory Therapist?
I worked in the automotive industry for eleven years and felt unfulfilled and stagnant in my career.  My friend is an RT and I asked to job shadow with her in the hospital.  I loved the variety of care and the constant interaction with patients and their families.  I took a buyout, finished school, and become an RT.

What makes you most proud of the Respiratory Therapy program at Special Tree?
I am proud of our team approach to developing a plan of care based on individualized goals for each client.   As a team we have a diverse background in Respiratory Care, which enables us to work together to make sure each client achieves their goals and continues to make progress in their rehabilitation and recovery.


PT Month Spotlight: Why I Love Being a Physical Therapist

By Jackie Cunningham, PT, CBIS -- As the temperature cools, the autumn leaves change colors, and the calendar flips to October, so begins National Physical Therapy Month.  PT Month is established to increase awareness to the profession. As a physical therapist for over 25 years, I often get asked the questions: are you happy with the profession you chose, and what do you like about being a physical therapist? Let us begin with who physical therapists are; PT’s are highly educated, licensed health care professionals who can help patients reduce pain and improve or restore mobility ( I learned this explanation when I was researching careers at the library way back, I mean way back… in high school. It intrigued me to continue my interest and exposure to this awesome field.

As a PT, one can work in many areas from schools, outpatient clinics, hospitals and rehabilitation centers all with the goals of increasing an individual’s function and reducing pain.  After graduating from Wayne State University, I immediately found my passion of working with individuals with life alternating experiences resulting in neurological deficits such as spinal cord injury, stroke, traumatic brain injury and multiple traumas.  I was very grateful to join Special Tree’s Rehab Team almost 10 years ago to continue this passion of restoring and improving mobility.

Even with patients’ undergoing devastating, catastrophic events, it is incredibly uplifting to assist your client in their function. When I answer the question are you happy with your choice and what do you like about being a PT. I often answer, how many professions are there that on a daily basis you are thanked immensely not only by your clients but also their family? How many professions allow you to watch someone go from being paralyzed and unable to get out of bed to often moving their body again, walking and regaining their independence?  How many professions do you work with a dynamic rehab team of educated health professionals? All of this occurs while working as a PT at Special Tree. It is truly amazing to assist the human body in recovery.

I have had so many positive experiences through the past 25 years that I often cannot give one story of success. When asked I state the stories are many and begin to blend together with an overall smile and happiness in my heart. So the answer is YES, I love my job, the profession I chose, and I am honored to work for such an awesome organization, Special Tree Rehabilitation System!

This October, National Physical Therapy Month’s theme is #ChoosePT! The platform is to increase awareness to physical therapy and decrease the use of pain meds and choose physical therapy as an intervention. I can proudly say I, #ChoosePT!