Tom and Pam Reynoso first met their adopted daughter May in a Guatemalan courthouse. They’d been told one leg was longer than the other when, in fact, 3 1/2-year-old May, later diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, required immediate and extensive medical treatment. A teary-eyed physician called the Reynosos angels as they scooped up 22-pound May and took her back home to Missouri.
The Reynosos had three biological children of their own, boys who ranged in age from 8 to 16. Adopting a fourth child was a family decision, with the Reynosos asking their sons if they wanted a built-in swimming pool or a sister. The boys didn’t hesitate.
Almost immediately after May arrived at Ranken Jordan Pediatric Bridge Hospital in St. Louis, a nurse said she’d like to take a bed-bound May out to play golf with hospital volunteer Kevin Corn. She’d just had surgery to remove a bone from her leg.
“I’m looking at them like they are nuts,” recalled Pam. “How in the heck is she going to play golf? Here she has this fixator on her leg.”
And so it began, May’s love affair with the game started from a strip of artificial turf on the side of her bed, and 15 surgeries later, 18-year-old May hits full shots on regulation courses with the use of a walker and a golf bag that bears her name.
Wednesdays are for golf at Ranken Jordan. For nearly 10 years now Corn, head pro at Innsbrook Resort, has been finding creative ways with the staff to make golf therapy part of the recovery process for any kid who shows an interest at the St. Louis hospital.
An accidental gunshot wound left Chenelle “CC” White paralyzed from the waist down, and she came to Corn’s golf session during her first week at Ranken.
“I think the smack-talk started before she ever picked up a club,” said Corn, with a laugh. “You’d have thought it was Jordan and Barkley at times with all the trash talk going back and forth.”
The focus of Ranken Jordan is transitional care with an emphasis on movement and play, whether it’s nurses pushing hospital beds around a baseball diamond, rock-wall climbing or indoor pool therapy.
The average stay at Ranken Jordan is 42 days and two-thirds of all patients require some form of breathing support. As advanced medicine keeps more kids alive after horrific car accidents, for example, there’s a growing need for longer-term care facilities like Ranken, of which there are less than 10 in the nation.
Kids shed hospital gowns for regular clothes at Ranken and spend much of the day outside their rooms. There’s also an emphasis placed on educating families and building confidence in at-home care.
“The saying at Ranken,” said Corn, “is that it’s the job of the big hospitals to save these kids’ lives, it’s our job to give their lives back.”
A PGA Magazine article on a similar program at the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas is what got Corn originally thinking about starting something similar in St. Louis. He asked around about the five pediatric hospitals in the area and ultimately ended up in a meeting with an executive at Ranken Jordan. Two minutes into the conversation, Corn said, it went from presentation to figuring out how to execute.
The hospital hasn’t spent any money on the golf program. The Gateway Section PGA helps to fund what Corn needs along with the help of U.S. Kids Golf and area pros who open up their courses and ranges to provide a real-world transition experience. Corn will never forget the lightbulb moment one patient had after driving a solo golf cart – donated by the St. Louis Cardinals ushers – that he could set a goal of one day driving a car.
Community integration at Ranken Jordan can mean learning how to do everyday things like open doors and order food at a restaurant or get in and out of a car to tour Christmas lights. Or head to a local driving range.
“We have to be the only hospital in the country with our own golf pro,” said Brett Moorehouse, Ranken Jordan President and CEO.
Last year a local TV station, KMOV of St. Louis, and Scott Credit Union donated a full-swing simulator to the hospital.
Jeremiah Moore, lying face-down while strapped in a bed and clutching a U.S. Kids driver with his right hand, rolled a bright yellow Almost nerf ball up on a plastic tee. With a swift one-handed pop, Moore sent the ball hurling toward the simulator. Corn caught the action on his phone.
Golf at Ranken isn’t limited to Wednesdays. It’s not even limited to one floor. They’ve been known to make up their own putt-putt course from time to time, mixing active therapy with imaginative fun.
When the PGA Tour tees it up at Kapalua next month, the kids at Ranken Jordan can play right along with them on the simulator while watching the broadcast from Hawaii in primetime.
Cooper Burks was born with neurogenic arthrogryposis, a deficiency of the joints that has led to dozens of lower-body surgeries for the joy-filled, sports-crazed 17-year-old, known for his ability to light up a room.
A nine-year-old Cooper decided he’d stay on at Ranken after he was promised chocolate ice cream for breakfast, but things really got good when he met Corn and hit his first golf shot from the side of his bed.
“Ranken can make any kid happy,” Cooper declared.
Kellye Burks says her son’s multiple stays at Ranken have lasted as long as three months at a time. The nurses there always knew when Cooper was coming because he’d be singing down the hallways.
“He knew the people in the kitchen,” said Kellye, “the people who cleaned. He was kind of the mayor of Ranken Jordan when he left.”
Last year, Cooper was back home in Athens, Georgia, playing 18 holes from a cart with his brother Will. Golf has given Cooper the ability to compete alongside his brother for the first time. The winner posts his score on the fridge to rub it in.
Cooper went to North Oconee High School full-time last year without the use of a walker. In August of 2020, however, he had his right foot rebuilt to correct a blood-flow issue and is now re-learning how to walk. In time, he’ll need work done on his knees and ankles.
Cooper counts Bubba Watson as his favorite golfer because watching the 2012 Masters at Ranken was his introduction to professional golf. One day he’d like to get out to East Lake to watch the PGA Tour pros he follows on TV up-close. Augusta National, of course, would be the dream.
Moorehouse would like to see therapy programs like the ones at Ranken spread to more hospitals around the country – and not just for kids. Prolonged isolation in hospital rooms, he said, leads to prolonged disorientation as well as added stress, depression and anxiety.
“If a golf program can work at Ranken Jordan,” said Corn, “it can work anywhere.”
Improvements in medical devices and therapy tools give even the most severely injured children the chance to play. Corn recalled one boy who’d been burned so badly that he lost all his fingers, and his hands were fully bandaged. The physical therapists at Ranken still found a way to fasten the club securely to the boy’s hands so that he could swing the club without pain.
Many children, like Cooper and May, want to continue with the game when they return home. Corn works to help find a place to play and local pros often pitch in with clubs.
Corn recalled the time one mom in particular asked where she could buy the clubs her son was using at therapy. Corn suggested Golf Galaxy or the U.S. Kids Golf website.
“No,” she said, “the ones my son is using. They are special clubs, right?”
No ma’am, Corn told her.
“My son,” the woman replied through tears, “has never used anything normal in his life.”