It did not take long for Recreational Therapist Tom McCarthy to find his life’s calling serving veterans in the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system in Palo Alto, CA. And it was that calling and passion – particularly for veterans with spinal cord injury (SCI) – that kept him there for 47 years.
Fresh out of college in 1966, McCarthy sought a job with the Palo Alto VA in hopes of gaining more experience to eventually move into his dream job of municipal recreation. But the longer he worked for the VA, the more he realized that working with veterans was his true calling.
“When I first started working there in June of 1966, some of the first patients I worked with were from World War I, and I even remember one from the Spanish-American War,” McCarthy says. “I’ve worked with a lot of WWI veterans and then WWII veterans, and it grew from there to veterans from the Korean War, Vietnam War to the young Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans of today. It truly was a calling for me.”
McCarthy, who retired on January 3, 2014, after 47 years of service to the Palo Alto VA, was honored with a lunch and dessert reception by Paralyzed Veterans of America's Bay Area and Western Chapter on December 19.
McCarthy began his recreational therapy career at the VA in areas including mental health, substance abuse and visual impairment. In 1981, the VA assigned him to the spinal cord injury unit, where he stayed until his retirement. “Being assigned to SCI was the best thing that could have happened to me in my life,” he says. “I say that in a modest way. The veterans there have been absolutely wonderful.”
McCarthy recalls several highlights throughout his established career, one being the efforts of he and other VA staff members to create a national triathlon for the physically challenged. He and the team of VA doctors, nurses and therapists gave up their own time to establish the event, which took place 10 times over the course of several years and also opened up to non-veterans and children, McCarthy says.
Another highlight was simply the involvement of wheelchair sports and how they enabled athletes and their medical staffs to advocate for change, McCarthy says. As wheelchair sports often involved air travel and hotel stays, it provided a chance to educate hotels and airlines on how to accommodate individuals in wheelchairs and make spaces more accessible, McCarthy says.
McCarthy also recognizes that the best therapists are often other veterans who are going through spinal cord rehabilitation, as they are able to communicate the importance of recreation as rehabilitation to someone newly injured. “Some veterans may not know right away the importance of recreation, but down the line it will be the core of the rehab itself,” he says.
McCarthy also recognizes the important relationship Paralyzed Veterans of America serves in being a partner for life, not only with the veterans it serves but also with the medical and administrative staff of the VA. “While other organizations might come in once or twice a year for a barbeque, there’s one group that’s there 24/7, and that’s Paralyzed Veterans of America,” McCarthy says. “If we didn’t have Paralyzed Veterans, the center itself would not be as effective as it really is.”
MCarthy hopes now to use his retirement to work on some projects around the house, travel and help his wife who works as an adaptive exercise instructor. He also hopes to eventually use his free time in retirement to serve veterans in a volunteer capacity.
“The veterans have really been an important part of my life,” he says. “When I started in 1966, I was 23, so the veterans and I all got older together. We went from brown hair to gray hair. The veterans adopted me and made my life a lot easier. It was a difficult thing to retire, but you get to a certain point in your life when you’re ready.”
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Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.