By LJ Sarten, ETS
Rainbow Rehabilitation Centers
The first day I met Tom Sparschu, he asked me to thread a needle for him. Upon returning the threaded needle, he said, “Thanks Buddy. Just wait, you’re going to be my new buddy.” Little did I realize at the time how true this statement would turn out to be and how much I would come to rely on Tom.
Prior to his accident in 2009, Tom was living at home with his parents in Mt. Clemens, MI. He spent his days working as a prep cook at an upscale Italian restaurant. He was responsible for keeping the kitchen clean, doing the dishes, emptying the trash, and stocking the wine cellar. He enjoyed his work and liked the owners of the restaurant.
In his spare time, he enjoyed drawing, gardening and taking care of the angel fish in the 10 gallon fish tank his father kept in their kitchen. Tom states that he was born with artistic talent that runs in his family. His Uncle Howard was also a budding artist. Prior to his accident, Tom had drawn two beautiful bird pictures that can now be seen hanging in the hallway at Rainbow’s corporate offices. He also states that he has always had a green thumb and a knack for taking care of fish. The green thumb he credits to his mother, and Tom’s affinity for fish comes from his father.
One night, after finishing his shift at the restaurant, Tom walked over to a store. He crossed three of the four lanes successfully before he was hit by a vehicle.
He doesn’t remember the accident itself, how he arrived at the hospital or his subsequent transfer to another. Tom suffered two broken legs, damage to his face, head and eye, and a traumatic brain injury (TBI). He was later told that his head hit the roof of the car which caused him to lose one of his eyes. He spent three weeks in a coma and required a tracheostomy, feeding tube, and multiple surgeries.
Tom was eventually transferred to a rehabilitation facility to begin the recovery process. While there, Tom began physical therapy to help him regain his ability to walk. Due to his bilateral leg fractures, Tom required the placement of titanium rods. He was initially wheelchair bound but progressed quickly to crutches and then to walking on his own again. It was during this time that Tom received his prosthetic eye, which he states does not affect his vision at all.
Tom received many visits from his parents during this time, and they brought him special mementos, many of which he still has today, including a shaggy rug for his room and a Christmas tree. Tom credits the support he received from his family for helping him in his recovery.
After 10 months, Tom was ready to move on to the next step in his rehabilitation process. He says that he still remembers touring Rainbow and walking into the fitness room for the first time. He knew then that Rainbow was where he wanted to continue his recovery.
At Rainbow, Tom began with occupational therapy, fitness and mental health counseling. He remembers working with Richard Monarch, COTA, building dinosaurs and “putting things together.” Together they worked on Tom’s fine motor skills, problem-solving, direction-following, sequencing, and decision-making. Tom also ran on the treadmill and participated in strength training exercises to continue regaining the strength in his legs. Eventually, Tom started getting more involved in our day treatment program, Rainbow U. One class in particular caught his attention: Introduction to Fibre Arts.
Introduction to Fibre Arts was taught by Char Sobieski-Greco, whom Tom states taught him everything he knows about fibre arts. When Char first created the fibre arts Rainbow U class, she wasn’t sure anyone would sign up. Tom was one of the many clients that expressed interest.
On the first day of the class, Char asked each client why they were there. Tom stated, “I just love art. I don’t know anything about fibre arts, and I want to learn about it.” It was through this class that Tom began to break out of his shell.
He initially worked at the end of the table, in his own space. Char remembers that everything Tom first created had to match and be symmetrical. She said he rarely used any colors except oranges, reds and yellows. Eventually she noticed that, as he got more comfortable, he started mixing things up by experimenting with more cool color tones.
At the end of the first semester, Char decided to hold the class a second time. She was shocked when the very same clients signed up again. She had planned on holding another Introduction to Fibre Arts class but quickly realized that she would have to branch out. She remembers Tom telling her that as long as she offers classes, he’ll keep coming because he loves art, and he’s making friends. “He really grew through his art. It helped him to open up, make friends, and get out of his comfort zone,” Char recalls.
It was this class that lead Tom to where he is today in the vocational program at Rainbow. As Tom and I talk about his accident and where he is today, he is multitasking like the best of them. As his job coach, it’s my job to help him build the vocational skills that he will need to seek community employment. Today he is putting the finishing touches on a custom ordered birdhouse, painting a superhero logo on a child’s Adirondack chair, and hoping to get started on felting scarves with Char.
The most common thing that Tom says to me is, “Oh, that’s easy. I can do that!” He can, and he does. From his first days in the vocational program painting and assembling wooden kits, to now showing off the painted picnic tables, tie-dyed end tables, painted scarves, decorated birdhouses and much more in the showroom of Rainbow’s Vocational Rehab Campus (VRC) in Ypsilanti, MI. These activities have boosted Tom’s confidence and have helped him form an identity for himself.
Aside from being my go-to for almost all things that need to be painted or decorated in the woodshop, Tom has also recently started working at a restaurant in Ann Arbor, MI. He started out, of course, decorating cookies but has now moved on to prepping food, making pies, and doing anything else that comes his way. He looks forward to it every week, reminding me on Tuesdays that he’ll be at the restaurant on Wednesday.
Tom still keeps busy gardening at his house where he is currently growing enormous tomato and cucumber plants, mint, basil, and parsley. He still has a knack for taking care of fish and maintains three tanks and five fish in his room, often bringing in pictures to show them off. On Mondays he volunteers at a cat shelter. Tom is one busy guy.
When I was approached about writing this article, I made a point to ask Tom how he felt about it. “They want you to talk about your successes,” I told him. “Oh, that’s easy. I can do that,” he replied. When I asked him specifically what he is most proud of and what he feels is his greatest success, he responded that it’s the silk scarves that he makes with Char. “The women eat them up!” he said.
Of all the things that Tom has been through over the years since his accident, he credits Rainbow’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program with allowing him to grow the most. “My art has really blossomed at the VRC, and I’m able to be creative and create my art.” Tom’s story is the definition of a success story.