Patients who receive physical or occupational therapy at Sanford Health typically work one-on-one with their therapists. A new program in Bismarck, North Dakota, is giving these patients a chance to play together in some of their favorite sports.
“Sanford Strong is a program that looks to connect individuals with complex medical backgrounds to long-term health and wellness,” said Mike Wagner, an occupational therapist and adaptive training specialist at Sanford Health.
Wagner puts in time with his patients at the Sanford Sports Complex in Bismarck, where high school and college athletes get back on the field as part of Sanford’s Return to Performance program. Wagner and his patients realize, though, that it’s not just varsity athletes who use sports to benefit their health.
“Discharge from therapy is rarely the end of the story. In most cases, it’s just the beginning,” said Wagner. “We want to try to provide an opportunity and an outlet for individuals to apply the progress they’ve made in therapy, and then take that next step.”
That’s where Sanford Strong comes in.
The program began in earnest in the fall of 2022. The following spring, Wagner began working with inclusive sports teams in the Bismarck-Mandan area. A pilot program began with Bismarck Century High School’s inclusive athletes, and a wiffle ball event took place this spring where athletes like Ben Enzminger participated.
“The Sanford Strong program was developing just at the exact right time that Ben needed it,” said his mother, Nicole Enzminger. “The focus for that program was to not so pediatric orientated, but was more grown-up orientated.”
Ben is a high school student who loves sports, but hasn’t always had the opportunity to play. He was born with cerebral palsy, and has spent plenty of time cheering his brothers and classmates on from the sideline. Not anymore though.
“He was pretty proud that he had to go to his practice, and it was his workouts and it’s his game on Saturdays, and not just going to his brothers’ activities,” said Enzminger. “It was his time. He was in the center of that activity, so he was pretty happy.”
Sanford Strong partners with Bismarck and Mandan high schools and provides opportunities for those schools’ inclusive sports programs, including wiffle ball in the spring, football in the fall and bowling in the winter.
Beyond rehab therapy
Sanford Strong isn’t limited to high school students or inclusive athletes though. Wagner says patients who have experienced complex medical events, such as a stroke, spinal cord injury or cancer diagnosis, can also be part of the program.
One example is Nora Allan, age 51, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in January of 2020.
“I was very active prior to my diagnosis and treatment,” said Allan, who is also a nurse practitioner at Sanford Bismarck. “I like to hike, I like to snowshoe, cross-country ski, all that stuff. Cancer just takes so much out of you. You get done with your chemo and radiation and you’re so busy for months and months, and it’s like, then what? I got to transition to this program and that keeps me doing things and lets me do what I want to do.”
Allan proudly mentioned her strength training, noting that she recently deadlifted 200 pounds. She also plays softball during the summer. She credits Wagner with a lot of her success.
“He can read me by now. How I’m doing. How I’m feeling. It’s a lot of encouragement,” she said.
For his part, Wagner says stories like those of Ben and Nora are the reason Sanford Strong was created.
“(High school) athletes will come in here and they’ll train all summer long for their sports. And we kind of looked at it and asked, why doesn’t everyone have that opportunity?” Wagner said. “Sanford Strong is for individuals all the way through the lifespan. We want to reach people at any phase of life.”
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