Everybody into the water!

Whether it's helping people with disabilities enjoy ocean activities, advising those with brain injuries or offering speech and physical therapy, Suzie Woolway works to enrich the lives of others. Here she's pictured with stroke victim Karen Batis at Hanalei

Whether it’s helping people with disabilities enjoy ocean activities, advising those with brain injuries or offering speech and physical therapy, Suzie Woolway works to enrich the lives of others. Here she’s pictured with stroke victim Karen Batis at Hanalei

Suzie Woolway is dedicated to serving those with disabilities and making their lives fuller

Suzie Woolway generates waves across the island through her work with Kaua’i Ocean Recreation Experience and her dedication to serving those with disabilities as a speech pathologist. So it comes as no surprise that she was recognized this year as one of Hawaii Business magazine’s “20 for the next 20: People to Watch.”

“I was really surprised. There are a lot of great people out there,” she says.

Though Woolway humbly admits she does not need the “kudos,” she is proud of the contributions she’s made during the last decade to a group of people who might not have otherwise received the same level of care and acknowledgement.

Stroke victims, people who have suffered head and spinal cord injuries and those who have developed diseases such as multiple sclerosis are among the many patients Woolway has assisted. Not only has she established organizations such as KORE, where people with disabilities are able to enjoy water activities like surfing once a month at Hanalei Black Pot, and the support group called Think B.I.G. (Brain Injury Group), Woolway is enhancing the lives of many others on the island with inpatient care through her new business, ‘Ohana Home Health.

She provides rehabilitative services such as speech pathology and physical therapy for people who are unable to leave their homes.

“The big thing is being able to offer people choices, comprehensive services,” she says, adding that out-patient services are traditionally more abundant for people with disabilities.

Woolway with stroke victim Karen Batis at a recent KORE outing at Hanalei

Woolway with stroke victim Karen Batis at a recent KORE outing at Hanalei

What initiated the business was a patient who was unable and unwilling to leave her home after a car accident while living on the East Coast left her with global aphasia. Formerly a dancer, singer and cinematographer, the patient lost her ability to easily move and talk. Her mother contacted Woolway and pleaded with her to help with speech therapy at their home.

“I learned she had once been this very, very dynamic woman,” says Woolway. “I remember seeing her sitting in this house and I could see that she was dying.

Her will to live was gone. You could see it.”

Woolway immediately was impacted and knew she wanted to provide a service to other people like this patient.

“There is always something you can do,” she says. “I focus on what they can do and not what they are unable to do.”

More specifically, Woolway helps develop a patient’s ability to communicate. But she doesn’t simply work on the physical component of it; she cultivates the internal aspects, as well.

“It’s kind of the process that happens behind speaking,” she explains. “There also is the understanding and the hearing of the information – what happens when it hits your brain and where it goes, so you can help put things together to express yourself again and be able to talk.”

Suzie Woolway at Hanalei on a KORE day

Suzie Woolway at Hanalei on a KORE day

In other words, a person takes in noise, the structural mechanical element, and then undergoes a process of understanding what it is to the expression of it through an organizational and structural process.

“We’re born to communicate. We’re hard-wired for it,” says Woolway, who believes that people can learn new abilities at any point in their lives.

“You can learn a language if you’re 99 years old and you can still hear the information and process it,” she says.

That is why she is an advocate for accomplishing a novel task every day – not only for her patients, but everyone else.

“That novelty is what builds neurons in your brain and helps you to be able to learn and adapt and keep functioning, and keep your brain in mental aerobics, because you’re not using the same pathway every single time, you’re branching out,” she says. “So, if something happens and you have a stroke and one of the pathways gets blocked, you have other options. It’s like a dam was put in the way with a brain injury and information gets backed up. What you want to do is build up so you can go around it.”

Woolway also helps patients develop new skills and pay more attention to what their bodies are doing, such as focusing on breathing and reading other people’s expressions, and thinking before saying the first thing on their minds. She teaches people with disabilities how to activate the “governor” of the brain that controls these things.

Suzie with her mother, Caroline Woolway. Photo courtesy Suzie Woolway

Suzie with her mother, Caroline Woolway. Photo courtesy Suzie Woolway

“It’s missing sometimes,” she says, adding that it’s why people with brain injuries have a tendency to be brutally honest. “But it also can put people off.”

Having a support group that meets regularly and holding KORE events is another way Woolway helps people with disabilities boost their confidence and develop healing qualities.

“She’s very helpful,” says KORE participant Karen Batis. “She’s a good person.”

Batis, who suffered a stroke several years ago, reaps the benefits of KORE. “Each month more people are coming. The bus keeps getting fuller and fuller,” says Batis, who travels from Kekaha to attend. “I’m glad she set this up,” she says of Woolway. “She’s very successful.”

Woolway attributes the beginning of her successful occupation to an experience she had while serving in the Army as a veterinarian technician for the military’s working animals. While living in Japan, she would bring kittens and puppies into classrooms as an extracurricular activity. She remembers a little girl with a kitten on her lap. When other kids started to hover over the girl, trying to grab at the kitten, she became protective of the baby animal.

“I thought, ‘Wow, she’s on it, she’s really on it,'” says Woolway.

However, the teacher came around the corner and made a scene when she discovered the little girl had a kitten on her lap.

“She said the girl was autistic and didn’t know how to be with animals,” says Woolway.

Woolway thought otherwise.

Suzie Woolway and husband Dan at a recent KORE event

Suzie Woolway and husband Dan at a recent KORE event

“Kids and animals are the best judges of character. If something is threatening, they let you know without a doubt that there’s an issue or a problem,” she explains. “So the teacher’s reaction didn’t fit with what I was seeing. The girl was great with the kitten.”

At that point, Woolway realized how positively influential animals are in helping people communicate. Initially, she had planned to acquire a veterinary degree after six years of working in the Army. Instead, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communications disorder and audiology from Humboldt State University in California so that she could serve as a speech language pathologist.

Her first job out of college was at a deaf and hard-of-hearing cochlear implant center in New Mexico.

“I did it for peanuts, but I wanted that experience,” she says.

Woolway, who grew up in California, eventually took another job in a different area of New Mexico, where she worked for The Arc. What inspired her to move to Kaua’i was a vacation in the late 1990s.

She moved to the island with her husband, physical therapist Dan Schaal, with whom she has a son, Ben, 11.

After working for Easter Seals for a short time, she started ‘Ohana Sports Medicine with her husband 10 years ago.

Now, that business, located in Kalaheo, is Schaal’s “puppy,” says Woolway, who has concentrated her efforts on ‘Ohana Home Health.

“I can’t even begin to describe the journey,” says Woolway about the time and effort and loads of paperwork it took to make her business official and fully accredited with Medicare, Medicaid, etc. “Basically, I had to prove we could do this. I went above and beyond what I needed to do.”

Her efforts have been worthwhile thus far.

Woolway provides people with a second chance at life. She has a positive way of looking at acquired disabilities.

“You’ve been given an opportunity to change that other people don’t get,” she says regarding the way people can view their disabilities. “It’s going to be different now, but that’s not a bad thing.”

When the Kalaheo resident isn’t working as a positive influence in the community, she makes sure to spend time with her family, including her dog, cat and chickens. She also enjoys venturing to North Shore beaches for ocean activities.

Yet, she still manages to spend much of her time serving those with disabilities because “I love what I do,” she says. coco@midweekkauai.com