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Opportunities Unlimited: Three decades of providing rehabilitation and hope

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SIOUX CITY (KTIV) -- For nearly 30 years, Opportunities Unlimited has served the needs of people with brain injuries.

The Sioux City agency provides rehabilitation services to help these people live the best life they can.

KTIV's Al Joens visited Opportunities Unlimited earlier this year before the COVID-19 pandemic set in and social distancing requirements were issued.

During his visit, he met a young man whose life was changed in an instant, but, who is finding new hope thanks to the care and rehab he's getting at Opportunities Unlimited.

It wasn't supposed to be like this for Lincoln Coakley. He was young. Athletic. A star wrestler at his high school. His whole life ahead of him.

But a terrible traffic accident two years ago changed everything for the Estherville teen.

"He was in a coma for a very long time," said Lincoln's mother, Alison Coakley.

Now his daily routine includes several hours of physical therapy at Opportunities Unlimited. His injury affected all the quadrants of his brain: speech, motor skills, swallowing. With dedicated therapists on his team at OU, Alison Coakley says she sees improvements in her son every day.

"I have great hope and I know he does, too," she said. "And he works so hard and he sees himself getting better and walking and getting back."

"Any time someone in therapy works with someone you also have to be a cheerleader for them and get them motivated to participate because there are hard days that come along," said Brooke Hindman, an occupational therapist at OU. "We never have that problem with Lincoln. He always gives 100% of himself every day all day, so, we do see good progress with him."

Despite the trauma to his brain, Lincoln's mind is sharp. And technology is on his side. Lincoln is able to communicate with his eyes--spelling out words by looking at letters and symbols on a tablet.

"You feeling good today, Lincoln?"

"Yes," he responded through the tablet. "I want to go to the mall for a movie," he said.

Helping him to interact with others is part of the mission at OU to maximize personal potential through dignified and purposeful living.

"We help them to kind of become self-aware that yes, they do have deficits, but that doesn't mean their life is not worth living or they don't have a lot to give to society," Hindman said.

Part of that push for more independence happens in the house where Lincoln lives along with four other people served by OU.

It's not just a place to eat, sleep, and watch TV. It's a place of continuing therapy. Clients are assigned chores suited to their ability.. things like making their bed, cleaning, or even cooking. For Lincoln right now, it's about communicating.

"Lincoln can use his device to tell us what his needs are. So that is a huge thing, so he can actually express anything that he wants," said Britney Cooper, Program Director at Opportunities Unlimited. "But, Lincoln can make choices, he can ask for things. He can work on maintaining his physical abilities by standing and weight-bearing through his legs so that he can be better at transferring to go back into the community."

Hindman added, "I do think he'll become more independent. He's working on a power wheelchair right now, which is going to help him get around without the need of a caregiver. With the communication devices, he's going to be able to do a lot of things without a caregiver necessarily being there, and like I said, he's very, very cognitively aware and very, very intelligent, so he can do a lot for himself, it's just the physical piece he'll probably need assistance with."

Lincoln's mother, Alison Coakley, said, "I believe in him and I believe that he can do whatever he puts his mind to because he is just exactly that determined."

Some of Lincoln's rehab is done with specialized equipment that's relatively new to Opportunities Unlimited. The Lightgate uses straps and harnesses to suspend the patient's gravity while they go through various forms of physical therapy. This takes away the risk and fear of falling so therapists can focus completely on the exercises.

"We work with a lot of people on standing, walking, and stuff with it, Lincoln, as well does standing and walking in here," said Hindman. "You can set the harness so that it is doing more of the weight or Lincoln's doing more of the weight. It helps the therapist to help his body more than just help prevent a fall."

Another piece of equipment is the DynaVision. It's a large panel with rings of lights in four quadrants. The patient touches each button as it lights up and reaction times are recorded. It helps develop motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

Hindman said, "It's very customizable and you can really re-train your brain, your vision system, your balance system to do all kinds of great things with this piece of equipment."

It's not just for rehab patients. Colleges and universities use the DynaVision for pre and post-concussion training. Elite athletes in the NFL and MLB and even fighter pilots also use DynaVision to test and improve reaction times and re-train their brains.

Opportunities Unlimited has been serving the needs of people with brain injuries for nearly 30 years. Every year in the United States, two-and-a-half-million people suffer brain injuries, through accidents or suffering a stroke. Officials at OU say it's a big problem that's under-recognized and under-researched. It's their mission to help their clients maximize their personal potential so they can live the most independent life they can.

Jennifer McCabe, President & CEO of Opportunities Unlimited said, "It's amazing how many individuals who've been affected by a brain injury are now working in the Siouxland community as well and holding jobs, bringing in their own income and just having a sense of pride and being able to contribute and, you know, live like anybody might want to."

Almost five-percent of the U.S. population is living with a brain injury.

Life has dealt Lincoln Coakley a tough hand, but he does have a lot of life ahead of him. Opportunities Unlimited is helping him make it a good life.

Al Joens

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