Vanessa Phillips performed the Polynesian hula for Sharp Rehabilitation patients every holiday season, never thinking she’d one day become a patient at the facility herself.
That all changed when, at 48 years old, Vanessa felt a sudden warmth on her left side. She fell in her bathroom and couldn’t support herself. Her husband rushed her to the hospital where she was diagnosed with a left hemorrhagic stroke, which causes bleeding in the brain, leading to pressure, reduced blood flow and brain damage.
Vanessa was admitted to the Sharp Allison deRose Rehabilitation Center where she had to relearn how to walk, maintain her balance and use hand motions — all skills necessary to dance hula.
“It was frustrating knowing that my body should move a certain way but wasn’t,” says Vanessa. “I wanted that back.”
Stroke affects people differently. Some patients experience changes to their cognitive abilities. There may also be lingering physical effects. Rehabilitation is about getting back to normal, or as close to normal as possible. Therapists look for ways to find something to motivate patients; hula dancing is Vanessa’s motivator.
Hula is the storytelling dance of the Hawaiian Islands — the language of the heart and the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people. Hula movements can signify aspects of nature, such as the swaying of a tree in the breeze or a wave in the ocean.
From a very young age, Vanessa wanted to dance hula, but her mother said she needed to be of Hawaiian descent to do so. Vanessa is Filipina, but was raised in the Hawaiian culture and exposed to the language and traditions by her mom, who is from Oahu. Years later, when traditions eased and her mother suggested Vanessa’s daughter learn hula, she decided to learn, too. She began dancing almost a decade ago, and since 2015, has performed with Heali'i's Polynesian Revue in San Diego, including shows at the Sharp Allison de Rose Rehabilitation Center.
Because of her passion for hula, physical therapist Heather Ubalde decided to incorporate hula into Vanessa’s therapy sessions following her stroke.
“Vanessa had an awareness of her body, even though she couldn’t feel her leg very well,” says Ubalde, who started Vanessa on weight-shifting exercises to build her core strength. “She was able to feel her body shifting from side to side, so we took her walker away and worked with her on the parallel bars. This motivated her to use her sense of side-to-side motion to regain the use of her legs.”
Ubalde tried an intervention called rhythmic auditory stimulation, which uses music and rhythm to improve a patient’s ability to walk. The technique involves taking steps in rhythm based on musical beats per minute, much like the swaying of the hips in hula. Once Vanessa started building her strength, Ubalde increased the speed of the metronome — or beats per minute — to improve her stride length.
“She’s a light in everything she does. She always stepped up to the challenge and gave it her all,” says Ubalde. “She made therapy fun.”
Vanessa’s in-person therapy sessions stopped due to the coronavirus pandemic, but she continues her therapy at home with exercises from her Rehab therapists as well as videos provided by her hula group. She also takes walks at least three times a week.
“In a weird way, I am thankful for the pandemic,” Vanessa says. “It’s given me time to recover instead of feeling sad that I am missing out on all the performances.”
She is grateful to the therapists at Sharp Rehab for giving her tools and exercises to use in her daily workouts. Her balance has improved and she’s getting back in tune with her body and paying more attention to what works.
“In hula, you have to be balanced in all things,” Vanessa says. “I’m not there yet, but I’m confident that I will get back to where I was so I can tell my own story through hula.”
Sharp Allison deRose Rehabilitation Center is one of San Diego’s leading providers of stroke rehabilitation services. Call 858-939-3097 to learn more.