Golf helping stroke survivors thrive


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After decades of swinging a club, golf suddenly seemed like an impossible dream for Allen Leader.

"In the beginning I couldn't walk, I couldn't talk, I couldn't create a check, couldn't do any of that," said Leader.

A stroke had left the Foster City sales executive badly paralyzed. But the slow road to recovery, would eventually lead straight down the fairway.

"I've seen players being on the driving range, and learning how to move an arm or hand or learning how to move their hands and arms, to actually checking into pro shop and playing our executive course which is fantastic," said Harding Park golf pro Almar Valenzuela.

Valenzuela is a pro at San Francisco's Harding Park and an instructor in the American Stroke Association's "Saving Strokes Program."

It's a therapy developed by a group of Northern California neurologists. Using the most basic motions of golf, pro's help stroke victims slowly rehabilitate damaged neuro-pathways.

Training often begins with techniques tailored to victims who may not be able to hit an actual golf ball for years.

The strategy is to overcoming frustration with achieveable goals.

"So we set up targets it's a foam square and it really takes a little swing like this, you line up and see your target and you hit it," said Valenzuela.

Research begun at the University of Chicago suggests that when the brain re-learns a physical movement, it can forge new pathways around damaged neurons.

Doctor Kenneth Fox is a stroke expert with Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco.

"What we're generally tryng to do is promote neighboring circuits around the area of the injury and promote them to take over the function that was lost as a result of the stroke," said Dr. Fox.

Depending on the location and severity of the stroke, some movement may never be recoverable.

But for James Hargrave, the golf therapy allowed him to re-learn the motion he uses to hold a paint brush, to customize clothing.

"I learned to how to use my hands, because I couldn't use my hands," said Leader.

Leader says his therapy took years, filled with small breakthroughs, and frustrating setbacks.

But now, six years after his stroke, he's finally comfortable with the motion he's regained, and evaluates his game the way most golfers do.

"I'm getting better," said Leader.

To reach the "saving strokes" program, call 1-888-4-STROKE or visit their website at

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