Rec Therapy Month Alumni Spotlight- Michael Henley


Name: Michael Henley
Graduation Year:

How did you become interested in this field?
After having a spinal cord injury at the age of 18, I got into playing adapted sports which really helped me learn to love life again.  While still in an inpatient rehabilitation hospital, I was introduced to BARS (Baltimore Adapted Recreation and Sports) at a Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Support Group.  BARS was a program started by a Recreational Therapist (who happens to also be East Carolina Alumni).  Some time after my injury, I started hand cycling, going on adapted snow ski trips and learning to mono-ski, sit water ski, camp and more with BARS.  It seemed like my life was on “pause” for a bit after my injury, and getting involved with adapted sports and recreation helped me pull through my depression and to get active again. It helped me get motivated to want more out of life.  The Rec Therapist who started BARS was super cool, intelligent, fun, and really helped a lot of others like myself.  She was my ultimate inspiration for me to go to college and become a Rec Therapist.

What were some of your favorite recreation​al therapy courses while studying here at ECU? 
Outdoor Programming for Individuals with Disabilities with Dr. Loy (Hands down, best course!)

What aspects of recreation​al therapy do you enjoy the most?
Simply put, I enjoy helping people.  This is my “give back” to the world after being a “difficult” teenager growing up.  The SCI Peer Support is a favorite program for me to work with because I get to connect patients with new SCI to trained SCI Peer Mentors living in the community who have completed rehabilitation in various aspects of their life after SCI.  This program is enjoyable, as well as powerful, as mentors can help teach new and improved ways to cope with SCI, clarify misconceptions, learn helpful resources, and teach self-advocacy.

I also enjoy having a more casual approach to therapy, yet still having purpose and addressing goals.  I am the more unique member of the interdisciplinary treatment team and I like it!  Adapted sports and community re-entry outings are an enjoyable aspect of my profession because I believe that therapy does not, and should not, have to take place in a quiet little therapy clinic.  Being outside of the office is great for me and can include, but is not limited to, being in a pool, on a basketball court, fishing at a park, a restaurant, or even playing laser tag in wheelchairs.  

Tell us about your current employer?  
I work at University of Maryland Rehabilitation and Orthopaedic Institute in Baltimore, MD., which is an acute inpatient rehabilitation hospital specializing in spinal cord injury (SCI), limb loss/amputee, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and stroke (CVA).  I work as a Senior Recreational Therapist primarily on the spinal cord injury unit, but I also cover on other units of the hospital as needed.  My main job is to provide Rec Therapy services to inpatients, but to also coordinate a few community-outreach programs for the hospital that are open to community members living with physical and/or cognitive disabilities.  These community outreach programs include leading a SCI Support Group and Peer Mentor Program, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis, and an annual Adapted Sports Festival.

 What is a typical day (or week) like for you? 
My day begins by planning out the treatment sessions with patients.  I carry a caseload of 6 to 10 inpatients that are scheduled in 30 or 60 minute, one on one or group sessions.  Each day from 11:30 to 12:15 I am teaching a patient education class or attending an interdisciplinary team meeting.  I have about 2 hours of documentation each day consisting of initial evaluations and plan of care notes, daily treatment notes, weekly plan of care notes and discharge summaries.  One evening a week I facilitate an SCI Support Group.  During certain seasons, I may be facilitating adapted sports programs one evening a week or on a Saturday.

 What has been your favorite experience working in recreational therapy so far?
It’s pretty difficult to choose only one experience because there have been so many.  Nothing beats having a motivated patient/client that seeks out Rec Therapy to resume healthy leisure or recreation after a life-changing event that results in a more long-term disability.  For example, years ago I had a patient with complete paraplegia due to diving into shallow water.  We made hand cycling a few times a week part of his Rec Therapy treatment.  As he was discharging home, I had the pleasure of fitting and ordering the patient’s own personal hand cycle.  A few years went by and that same patient worked super hard training and made Team USA for Paracycling and is going to go to Tokyo for the Paralympics. 

Where do you see the future of recreation​al therapy headed?
I see the field of Recreational Therapy headed to requiring more education (like a master’s degree) to be entry-level.  Physical Therapists require a doctorate to be entry level, and Occupational Therapists are soon to be required a doctorate to be entry level practitioners.  I feel that PTs, OTs and SLPs are far better prepared to be entry level than I was with earning my bachelors in RT.  I remain hopeful that insurance coverage of RT services will increase, but I also think that more research and proven outcomes are needed to back RT services. 

I also see Recreational Therapists being used in more community settings that support inclusion programs for children and adults with disabilities.

What is the greatest challenge recreational therapists face? 
Being covered by health insurance continues to be a challenge.  Also, developing and maintaining a culture of respect within the workplace that views Rec Therapy as having an important role in a patient’s rehabilitation.  When I was in my internship prior to graduation, and as a new grad entering the field, I struggled to find my identity as a RT on an interdisciplinary treatment team.  There were days when many of my patients would decline RT services while in rehab due to lack of motivation, poor coping, or maybe not fully understanding how RT will help them walk and return to work again.  With more years of experience, many closed-door conversations with my senior or manager, and a few good role models, I was able to know my role on the treatment team.

What advice would give to students who wish to enter this field? 
Work hard and take advantage of every volunteer opportunity possible, whether you’re helping a local adapted sports program or observing at a local addiction treatment program.  The experiences can be very rewarding and will help shape your philosophy of Recreational Therapy (and yes, it’s very important to develop your own philosophy to help with your identity).  Do not choose Recreational Therapy just because it sounds easy or fun.  Trust and believe that Recreational Therapy can be powerful medicine.  Look into the specialty certifications recognized by NCTRC, such as an Adaptive Sports and Recreation, Physical Medicine and Rehab, Pediatrics, Geriatrics or Behavior Health to name a few.  These specialty certifications can increase your knowledge and experience, as well as make you more marketable.  Lastly, use your talents you may not have learned in school.  If you grew up being good at a certain sport or type of art, learn how you would teach that activity to someone with a disability.  Make it fun and make it functional!