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Frankfort hand therapist boasts rare certification

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Updated: December 4, 2013 6:15AM



Rick Brasel’s work station is filled with so many toys and devices that one of his clients refers to him as “Inspector Gadget.”

There’s bright-colored putty, tiny manipulatives, wheels, balls and grippers — all of which he shares with those who visit him.

On a recent afternoon, Nick Rizzo was manipulating the manipulatives with his fingers, squeezing the gripper and lifting a heavy blue ball. Randy Collette wrestled with some very tough putty, while Anthony Catezone rolled his arm back and forth with a wheel.

It’s all in a day’s therapy.

Brasel, an occupational therapist at Flexeon Rehabilitation in Frankfort, recently became a certified hand therapist, one of an elite group of 5,800 hand specialists worldwide — a “gold standard” among therapists, he said.

His gadgets are intended to help his clients regain full use of their hands and arms.

What makes the hand so special?

“Ultimately, it’s everything we do. The hand is most important in terms of overall function,” Brasel said, admitting he’s biased. Hands are required for doing basic activities, such as eating, brushing teeth and combing hair.

“A large portion of our body does nothing during the day. But hands never get a break. Hands can do so many things. If you cannot see, you rely on feeling. You lose a lot of functions that you take for granted if you can’t use your hands,” he said.

Just ask his clients.

Rizzo suffered a stroke a few months ago and lost all functions on his right side. He was unable to fasten his shirt buttons, tie his shoes or hold a coffee cup. After a few weeks with Brasel, “I can tie my shoes and dress myself and do a lot of things I couldn’t do before,” Rizzo said.

Brasel works Rizzo’s hand and arm muscles in a variety of ways to help him regain strength, endurance, coordination and sensation.

“Our goal is to have him resume all the functions he had before,” Brasel said. “As he progresses, I have to be more creative to challenge him or it gets too easy for him.”

As a CHT, Brasel has a specialty niche: the art and science of rehabilitation of the upper limb, which includes the hand, wrist, elbow, forearm and shoulder.

This certification is voluntary but requires at least five years of clinical experience as an occupational or physical therapist, a minimum of 4,000 hours in direct practice of hand therapy, the completion of a four-hour comprehensive test of skills and theory in upper limb rehabilitation, in which the failure rate is 50 percent, said Brasel, an occupational therapist for nearly 25 years.

It means he has a thorough understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the skin, muscles, nerves, the vascular and skeletal systems of these body parts and what is needed to make them move and work.

This specialty is like an advanced college degree, which makes therapists more marketable, he said. He is licensed in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan and is also a certified ergonomic assessment specialist.

“I want my patients to feel like they are getting the best. I would want my family to get the best,” he said. “This allows me to treat a wide range of cases. With this specialty I see a wide range of injuries.”

While Rizzo’s injury was neurological, Collette’s and Catezone’s were physical. Collette had a chronic wrist injury due to overuse, and Catezone broke his elbow in a fall. Both men are eager to return to work.

“Whatever he does is magical. I swear my arm has progressed incredibly since I have been seeing Rick,” said Catezone, of Mokena, who broke his elbow in September. He lost his wrist and forearm motion. Brasel had him grip a wheel and rotate the muscles in his arm and hand.

“When I first came here, I could not move my arm. I didn’t know anything about physical therapy,” he said.

The day after Collette had his wrist scoped out, he was in Brasel’s clinic.

“The sooner we start moving the better,” Brasel said.

They wonder how he comes up with some of these therapeutic activities that seem simple on the surface but initially are difficult for them to do.

“I look at what body part is moving and what is required to make it move and I convert that to an activity,” the therapist said. “You learn what works with patients and what doesn’t.”

The therapy is tailored to meet the specific needs and condition of each client, working within the framework of their injury.

During his career, Brasel has seen injuries that are much worse, but he is sensitive to the fact that for his clients, their own injury is the worst for them.

They develop a love-hate relationship and a deep trust.

“I derive satisfaction from seeing patients progress. I ask them to tell me what they can do this week that they were not able to do last week. It may be a simple activity like brushing their teeth,” he said. “When they leave, I tell them, ‘It’s nothing personal, but I hope I don’t see you again.’ ”



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