Program helps stroke survivors rehab through golf

Jeff Chiu/APPGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem speaks between the Presidents Cup trophy

Drew Sperling fell in love with golf soon after he picked up his first club at age 20.

He played as often as he could and in less than a year, he was shooting in the mid-80s.

But his progress came to a screeching halt on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving nearly four years ago.

“I had planned to play a round of golf with my dad,” said Sperling, an Oakland resident. “Instead, I was transported to a trauma hospital.”

Sperling, 25, suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. He spent one month in a medically induced coma and his weight dropped to 102 pounds.

“I was really skinny, in a wheelchair and I could only say three words,” Sperling said.

Nowadays, Sperling speaks fluently, he walks and he’s also driving the golf ball more than 100 yards thanks to a program called Saving Strokes, which helps stroke survivors regain muscle strength, control and mobility through golf.

“The action of golf involves so much balance, coordination and focus,” California Pacific Medical Center physical therapist Sonya Richardson said. “It’s a great training tool for the brain and the body to rehabilitate.”

Saving Strokes started in Sacramento 12 years ago and it now has more than 20 programs across the western states, including an annual five-week course at the Presidio Golf Course in San Francisco, which enabled Sperling to rediscover his swing.

Post-stroke rehabilitation is a process of rewiring a damaged part of the brain. Oftentimes, stroke survivors lose functioning on one side of their bodies and tasks, like swinging golf clubs, can be used to help the brain develop new connections with the damaged area.

Research shows golf is a particularly effective activity because it requires both sides of the brain and body to work together to complete concurrent tasks.

“Golf is a full-body task,” Richardson said. “It demands that they up-train their timing on the weak side — we do a lot of similar things when we’re teaching people how to walk.”

But the benefits of Saving Strokes extends beyond the physical realm.

“I’m meeting a lot of other people who’ve had strokes,” said Jim Matsuku, a stroke survivor who had zero golf experience prior to Saving Strokes. “The camaraderie is great. You don’t feel like you’re struggling all by yourself.”

Sixteen stroke survivors are currently participating in this year’s program at the Presidio Golf Course and they’re learning how to drive, chip and putt with instruction from the club’s golf professionals. They compete and cheer each other on whenever possible.

“I had a misconception about golf,” Marisol Ferrante said. “I said, I don’t want to go, it’s going to be boring — I hate golf. Then, when I got here, I was like, whoa, this is a lot of fun.”

Through the program, stroke survivors, such as Ferrante and Matsuku, receive an opportunity to be outside, exercise and take on new challenges.

“The mental health component is crucial,” said Frank Sperling, Drew’s father. “If you couldn’t hit a ball day one and now you can hit one out of five, you can give yourself a pat on the back and it might encourage you to take on other challenges.”

Drew Sperling said he was “down in the dumps” about a year ago and his return to golf through Saving Strokes lifted his depression.

“It’s the determination,” Sperling said.

The right side of Sperling’s body is paralyzed, so he’s learning how to play all over again. He grips and swings the club with his left hand while resting his non-functioning right hand against the shaft for support and guidance.

At first, he hit the ball 10 yards, then 15 yards and now he’s driving it more than 100 yards again. His goal is to reach 200 yards while ironing out the wrinkles in his short game.

“Every win just reinforces your potential,” Sperling said. “And being able to hit the golf ball, again, and continue to improve is satisfying.”Golf

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