URI’s Gateway Café opens doors for survivors of Traumatic Brain Injury

Posted on
KINGSTON, R.I. – April 28, 2008 – John Downey and Patrick Surowice enter the Gateway Café on a recent Saturday around noon. John heads straight for a Coca-Cola from the vending machine. Getting his dollar straightened out takes a bit of work, but eventually he has his Coca -Cola to sip on. Patrick’s friend picks up an iced tea for him while he settles down around the table.

John suggests a card game and starts to explain his favorite, scat. While explaining, it is difficult for him to get out certain words. It takes him more than 10 minutes to describe, a bit longer than average. Even while playing the card game, people are still a bit confused until they finally get into the rhythm of it as John further describes the game.

But that’s ok because the two men are at the University of Rhode Island’s Gateway Café, a comfortable and fun place for individuals with traumatic brain injury or stroke. The café, located in the Independence Square Facility, provides a venu for participants to interact socially with one another. Billie Connors, director of the URI Speech and Hearing Center, and Dana Kovarsky, URI Professor of Communicative Disorders, are co-directors of the Gateway Café. “Every year about 1.4 million people suffer traumatic brain injury, and this doesn’t even include war veterans,” said Kovarsky. Furthermore, “within two years of having a traumatic brain injury, individuals can lose up to 90 percent of their friends.”

Connors added that “the Gateway Café gives people with traumatic brain injury a chance to develop friendships and to combat feelings of social isolation.” The café is open at no charge and sandwiches and beverages are free. Visitors may choose to purchase drinks from a vending machine. Up to 10 survivors from Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts attend the bi-weekly program.

Other than Patrick’s wheelchair, it’s hard to think of these two men as having disabilities after getting to know them. They’re always cracking jokes. Patrick was excited to see there were so many women graduate students at the café, “Now we can all share our beauty secrets,” he joked.

After their game of scat, everyone decided to play black jack, and John and Patrick won the small pot almost every time. They had an amazing ability to make light of their own difficult circumstances. For example, Patrick said, in reference to himself and the coffee he drank that morning, “Have you ever seen a guy with nerve problems on caffeine? It’s a riot.”

About three years ago, graduate students in the Department of Communicative Disorders at URI developed the program with the support of Connors and Kovarsky. About one year later, these two faculty members applied for and received a grant to run the café. Everything at the café is completely optional, visitors may choose to participate in certain games or not.

“I have been coming since it began and it is fabulous,” said Eve Downey, John’s mother, of Warwick, R.I. “The women students who volunteer are great. They have lots of personality and they laugh easily. They are sweethearts, always bringing in treats and surprises for those recovering from injuries. This is an important resource because so many programs for those with traumatic brain injuries are being scaled back or eliminated due to budget cuts.”

The café will be adding an optional physical therapy component in the fall for those who wish to take part. Current participants in the café were asked about the physical therapy component and they said it was a good idea.

Faculty members Connors and Kovarsky supervise the program; while students from Communicative Disorders engage the participants in the various social activities of the day, along with chaperones who come with the participants.

If you feel as though you may benefit from this program, call the URI Department of Communicative Disorders at 874-5969. This year’s program ends May and will resume in September.

Pictured above

Visitors are right at home as they play a board game and enjoy a few snacks at the Gateway Café. From left Seth Austin of North Kingstown, Patrick Surowice of West Warwick, and Kevin Gallagher of North Kingstown. URI Department of Communications and Marketing Photo by Michael Salerno.