Volunteer Russell Cohen speaks to a group of MossRehab employees

MossRehab Patient Finds True Healing Through Volunteerism

By on 07/26/2019

When Russell Cohen, a former skilled nursing facility recreation assistant, became an inpatient at MossRehab in 2013 after a stroke, he took advantage of rehabilitation medicine to regain lost physical abilities. But from the beginning, the 56-year-old Philadelphia resident struggled mentally to cope with his situation, as he initially tried to hide from his parents the fact that he had suffered a stroke.

With the support of his care team at MossRehab, Cohen pushed himself through the difficult work of physical rehabilitation. Slowly but surely his body began to heal.

But mentally, his injuries lingered. Faced with some permanent physical limitations, Cohen couldn’t shake his self-perception as a burden to others, with little to offer to those around him.

For two years, despite consistent progress in his physical recovery, Cohen’s mental health continued to deteriorate. The darkness felt inescapable as he battled depression and persistent thoughts of suicide.

Turning the Corner in Recovery

Then, in 2015, Cohen met Ellen Goldberg, manager of Volunteer Services at Einstein Healthcare Network. Goldberg set Cohen up with a job as a volunteer at MossRehab, beginning a new phase in his recovery.

“Having the opportunity to volunteer at MossRehab changed my life,” Cohen says. “For me, that’s where the physical and mental rehabilitation meshed.”

Still in a wheelchair at the time, Cohen started out small, visiting patients on only a single floor. “I listened to their stories and picked up their spirits,” he says of his work as a volunteer. Before long, he was walking again with the help of a cane, and visiting patients on every floor of the building.

For Cohen, volunteerism was a powerful form of therapy. It gave him back things physical rehab alone could not: a sense of purpose and a spark for life.

“Russell healed himself by healing others,” Goldberg says.

Becoming a Patient Advocate

True to his ambitious nature, Cohen wasn’t satisfied with just the positive impacts of his work as a volunteer. As a lifelong student with a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees, he knew he could do more. So Cohen decided to play the role of teacher for a change and spread his message to those directly involved in patient care.

In June, Cohen delivered a presentation to MossRehab employees about the importance of treating patients as humans first and the benefits of volunteering. Woven into his moving, joke-peppered speech were two key messages for the audience of doctors and therapists:

Russell Cohen laughs while telling a story to MossRehab staff.

Cohen tells a story to MossRehab staff.
  1. Understand your patients’ emotional health.
  2. Encourage volunteerism after treatment.

“I know everyone’s busy, but take the time to ask your patients how they’re doing,” Cohen said. He urged staff to dig deeper than a one-word answer. “Just because a patient says they’re ‘fine’, don’t assume they’re really OK,” he added.

If a patient appears to need mental health support, make sure they have access to the appropriate resources, Cohen said.

Then, when a patient’s physical rehabilitation is over, Cohen stressed the value of encouraging volunteerism as a continuation of their therapy. “They don’t need to be able to walk to volunteer,” he noted, pointing to himself as an example. “Make it a goal to have patients volunteer.”

Today, Cohen is an asset for MossRehab patients and employees alike, whether he’s personally lifting the spirits of someone struggling through the emotional aspects of physical rehabilitation, or empowering someone else to do it in the future.

“He’s a positive presence,” says Davis Berzins, an occupational therapist in the Outpatient Department at MossRehab. “Russell’s passion is sharing his story with staff, patients and anyone else it can help. His goal is to put a smile on everyone’s face.”

Cohen hopes his efforts will encourage more former patients to join him among the ranks of MossRehab volunteers, continuing to heal themselves while helping to heal others.

For information on how to become a volunteer at MossRehab or Einstein Healthcare Network, contact Ellen Goldberg at GoldbergE@einstein.edu or 215-456-6059, or learn more online.



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