Van Matre Encompass Health Rehab Hospital: Restoring Lives for Two Decades

For two decades now, people recovering from a serious illness or accident have found a new outlook on life thanks to this Rockford facility’s unique approach to therapy.

The Ekso Skeleton, demonstrated here by Chris Windle, PT, DPT, and Kate Heinricher, PT, DPT, is a high-tech tool that helps patients to relearn their walking after an extended illness.

What he really wanted was to play catch with his son again. But first, he had to regain his strength.

His injuries were extensive after the tradesman fell through the skylight and onto a concrete slab. He endured surgeries and time in the intensive care unit. He left the hospital but wasn’t yet ready to return home. So, he spent two months in an intensive inpatient rehabilitation program at Van Matre Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital, 950 S. Mulford Road, in Rockford. There, a team of therapists and physicians helped the tradesman to regain his life.

“He walked out of here after a very long but intensive rehab stay,” says Dr. Stephen Talty, medical director. “I saw him a number of times in follow-up, and he got his wish. He went home and played baseball with his son.”

Success stories happen on a near-daily basis at Van Matre as a team of rehab physicians and physical, occupational and speech therapists help people to transition from a critical illness to an independent life. As an acute rehabilitation unit, this facility most often serves people who’ve experienced stroke, brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, COVID-19, amputations and other forms of trauma. Team members are joint commission certified in stroke, spinal cord injury and brain injury.

“If you’re hospitalized for any number of conditions and you end up having deficits that prevent you from going home, or you have a decline in mobility and self-care and can benefit from intensive rehab, we offer the highest level of rehab anywhere in this city,” says Talty. “We’re the only acute rehab unit, so we are able to offer 3 hours of therapy, on average, per day.”

Team members take a multidisciplinary approach, meaning therapists, nurses, case managers and a psychologist review, a patient’s care plans in tandem. The process ensures everyone is in alignment as they support the patient’s needs and goals.

“Our No. 1 priority is getting patients back home and into the community, so we want to help them back to their prior level of independence and function, or, because of the illness or injury, help them adjust to a life in independence that may look different,” says Jeff Reese, CEO. “It’s really up to us to make sure that we’re preparing and setting up those individuals to be able to function and flourish in the community.”

Behind Van Matre’s experienced team is one of the nation’s largest providers of inpatient rehabilitation. Encompass Health currently maintains about 140 facilities across the country.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Van Matre Encompass Health Partnership at its current location on Rockford’s east side. The facility’s current success is founded upon two decades of growing experience and knowledge for helping an ever-changing patient population.

“When we first moved to this location, we were just a 40-bed hospital,” says Tonya Markert, PT, DPT, business development director for Van Matre. “I’ve been here 15 years and we’ve gone through two major expansion projects so that we’re now a 65-bed inpatient rehab hospital.”

Just in time for the anniversary, crews are wrapping up an $8 million refresh to the facility, with the goal of making a cozier, more home-like setting for patients in recovery. This includes updates to flooring, walls and decor.

In smaller ways, those updates help to improve the patient experience – and that’s a major focus for the Van Matre team.

“We invest heavily in the discharge process for our patients,” says Reese. “We make sure we go over medication management and nutrition, additional exercises, therapies they can do outside the hospital, so that we can fully prepare them to not only go home but to be successful days, weeks, months and years beyond their stay with us.”

Before they even arrive at Van Matre, patients and their families meet with a liaison at the hospital to go over expectations, services and more. Families are welcomed to tour.

“On the first day we have orientation, and each day is set up with a schedule,” says Talty. “Each patient has a whiteboard with a schedule, and we’ll have goals written on there. The whole team is reviewing that board each day, and the schedule is usually divided up with rest periods in between therapy. We do offer therapy on weekends, as well.”

As soon as possible, the team reviews discharge dates and patient goals. The experience is intensive and highly hands-on, Talty says, but that experience is a big reason why the average patient stay is just 12 to 14 days – a shorter stay that the average skilled nursing facility.

“The vast majority of our patients are up and out of bed, having breakfast, and then they’re moving, they’re active, during their day,” says Talty. “We have them outdoors and doing lots of activities outside of the room. It’s a much more aggressive, hands-on approach.”

Backing up that hands-on approach are advanced technologies that enable patients to get up and moving faster than traditional approaches.

The AutoAmbulator almost resembles an astronaut’s treadmill, with a walking platform and armatures that stabilize the patient. Harnessed in, the patient relearns to walk with guidance from robotic armatures.

The Ekso Skeleton system performs a similar task, except that this one straps on to the patient. Robotic controls help to stabilize and, in some cases, gently move the patient’s arms, legs and torso. Built-in safety features keep the patient from falling.

Markert, who began her career as a physical therapist, finds that these tools keep patients moving longer, with less exertion. The extra steps add up to faster progress.

“Before, a lot of patients would be walking the parallel bars and they could do maybe 10 feet or so,” she says. “In the Ekso Skeleton, they’re walking maybe a thousand steps, so it’s much more from an endurance standpoint.”

“I consider those our tear machines,” adds Reese. “With patients who’ve been in a serious accident, like falling out of a tree or getting in a car wreck, they haven’t been up and actually using motion in their legs for months. Now, all of a sudden they’re upright and starting to feel that independence.”

Part of the therapy gym is dedicated to practicing daily tasks. A fully functional kitchen and laundry room allow patients to practice basic care in a familiar environment. They can step outdoors and practice walking to a mailbox or working in the community garden, where flower beds are set up for kneeling, standing or wheelchair heights.

By the time they’re ready to go home, patients are equipped to continue recovering on their own.

“We look at this as a rigorous program, and making it to the end is something to be celebrated,” says Reese. “We have different ceremonies we do in the hallway, and we have cards in the rooms. They can ring the bell in the therapy gym. All of those really important things signify this truly is an achievement making it through our program.”

He recalls one recent patient, “B,” who contracted COVID while pregnant. By the time she arrived at Van Matre, she couldn’t walk and had trouble with basic daily care.

She regained her function and learned to hold her newborn safely. Upon discharge, “B” left with the baby cradled in her arms.

“A lot of our patients come in on stretchers or wheelchairs and they make such significant gains,” says Reese. “Whether they leave in a wheelchair or by walking, it’s an achievement our staff takes pride in. There’s a connection there, and they know they’re part of this patient’s story.”