The BIG Connection: Quality Living, Inc.
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Brain and spinal cord injuries foist harrowing limitations on those injured — from complete physical paralysis to impaired cognitive function. The effects of severe and traumatic injuries not only create seemingly permanent boundaries for an individual’s life, but can also create a system of dependence that forces loved ones to become caregivers and life-long passions to become bygone, unattainable memories.
It is at QLI’s 65-acre campus, nestled quietly on the corner of 72nd and Sorensen Parkway, where the men and women and families affected by injuries come to redefine their lives. Over the last 25 years the center’s sphere of influence has experienced immense growth, treating injuries from over 37 states, including Nebraska, each year. Major hospital networks and healthcare providers nationwide look to QLI as an unrivaled specialized resource when managing the most catastrophic of cases — the ultimate connection point between urgent trauma and medical care and a client’s return home.
“QLI exists in a unique position,” QLI President and CEO Patricia Kearns said. “We are a post-acute rehabilitation center. That means we’re not a hospital, but can still provide an incredible level of continual, complex medical support. Our program is intensive enough to provide what is essentially 24 hours-a-day of hands-on inpatient rehabilitation, while also being flexible enough to tailor therapies to the needs and goals of the individual client.”
Expertise and Innovation
QLI’s unique hybridization of formal intensity and flexible customization equates to a comprehensive rehabilitation program. Its description of services stretches to almost exhausting lengths, with teams strategically dividing individual therapy goals into targetable charts of progress.
But unlike other rehabilitation providers, QLI’s program preoccupies itself with helping injury survivors master functional skills, sustainable beyond the walls of a therapy gym and beyond the dependence on direct support. QLI estimates its therapists take clients on more than 3,000 trips into the Omaha community each year. Where formal therapy has its limits, real-world exercises shatter physical and cognitive boundaries otherwise established by injury.
“We might work on an individual’s range of motion or strength and conditioning in the gym,” said Michala Witas, QLI’s director of physical and occupational therapy services, “but the real test is whether this person with a spinal cord injury can still lift their child onto their lap or from out of a car seat. Or even if they can perform something as simple as navigating a hill or over uneven ground.”
“We actively utilize real-world opportunities to confront the same challenges we would in traditional therapy. By using this method, our team can build routines and techniques the client can use to perform tasks well beyond their rehabilitation. And the client rebuilds their confidence to know they can still do these normal things without so much assistance,” Witas said.
Building a Life Path
One of the essential components of QLI’s program harnesses the individual characteristics of each respective client. Taking a client’s passions — the very elements which define that person’s identity — and incorporating them directly into therapy helps QLI transcend the limitations of an injury.
To accomplish this, QLI’s Life Path Services team connects those meaningful and relevant passions, and their underlying importance, to empowering avenues of participation. Perhaps an individual loves bowhunting both for the thrill of the activity and for the opportunity to be around family and friends, or perhaps an individual drove race cars as part of their career path before injury. Perhaps an individual fears they can’t fulfill their duty as a parent, thinking themselves incapable of pushing their child on a swing or even helping care for their newborn.
The organization’s Life Path Services department collaborates directly with all of QLI's clinical teams to engineer practical solutions to these problems, creating what QLI’s Adaptive Sports Specialist Ed Armstrong calls “rehabilitation rocket fuel.” An all-terrain powered wheelchair allows the hunter to navigate off-road paths, and a specialized mount allows them to safely aim and discharge their bow; a community partnership gets the race car driver back on the track with therapist supervision; an accessible playground reconnects an injured parent to valuable time playing with their children.
“Getting people back to the things they love becomes a hugely motivating part of what drives them through therapy,” Armstrong said. “It’s a cycle that perpetuates itself. If they can do the things they love with the people they love, they’ll work harder in therapy. After working harder in therapy, they’ll eventually be better and stronger at doing the things they find meaningful and inspiring.”
Excellence in Culture
The organization does not thrive on its industry-changing product alone. Instead, the company cultivates a workplace culture to ensure the success, growth, and continued engagement of each of its 370+ employees. Since 2005, QLI has been named a Best Place to Work in Omaha six times, a distinction repeatedly earned as a result of its workforce’s infectious and undeniable enthusiasm for the corporate mission.
“Our staff’s commitment to QLI comes from our organization being truly invested in their success in work and in life,” said QLI’s Vice President of Human Resources Alicia Elson.
That investment takes its form in a myriad of ways, ranging from financial planning courses to help staff manage retirement funds, to powerful mentoring relationships designed to augment an employee’s leadership ability amongst coworkers. QLI’s supervisors and executives even pen personalized notes of gratitude and pride to the spouses and parents of staff.
“We aren’t afraid to brag about their great work on their behalf,” Elson said.
Flat Systems and “Rerecruitment”
Small appreciative touches go far in executing what QLI coins the “rerecruitment” process — the effort to retain the incredible talent the company has curried within the Omaha area. But the bulk of rerecruitment happens during day-to-day operations as staff and clinical teams coordinate together to plan client rehabilitation strategies.
The collaboration necessary to make QLI’s mission so successful requires a flat system of leadership, a system that minimizes the importance of seniority in favor of creativity, innovation, and sound problem-solving. Every team member contributes an equal voice in discussion. Actionable plans come not always from the most senior part of the company, but rather, from the entire team’s desire to do what is right for the client and their individual clinical need.
“Everyone sets their ego aside,” said Todd Schmitz, an adaptive tech repair specialist at QLI. “We put the client first, and everyone works toward the same goal. It doesn’t matter who the good idea comes from — since we all work with the intent of helping this person recover, we’re going to take that good idea and it’s going to make a difference.”
A popular adage at QLI, and one of the company’s foremost principles of leadership, reads “Good staff have the right to work with good staff.” In building teams of individuals dedicated to helping their coworkers succeed, each link in the proverbial chain is as strong as the next. Each employee has the opportunity to lead and the opportunity to take ownership over significant decisions across the company.
QLI’s workforce is so proud because, in point of fact, QLI belongs to its staff. The employees are the protectors of its culture and the shepherds of its success.
Doing It Together
“The facilities we have at QLI are simply bricks and mortar,” Kearns said. “You could build a hundred different QLI’s in a hundred different cities, but none of them would succeed without Omaha’s unique culture and the support this city provides.”
Indeed, QLI openly credits the empowering loyalty of the Omaha community with strengthening its medical programming and providing a wealth of opportunities to the families who seek out QLI’s services.
To best deliver real-world therapy experiences, QLI relies on numerous community partnerships. Sports and recreation resources like Omaha’s DiVentures, Approach Rock Climbing Gym, and the Heartland Equine Therapy Riding Academy (HETRA) coordinate directly with QLI’s clinical teams to maximize therapy goals, and, simply, offer important experiences unavailable on QLI’s campus. On the other end of the clinical spectrum, QLI utilizes an ever-expanding nucleus of employers and vocational resources to assess a client’s potential for returning to work. From Omaha’s Heart Ministry Center to Wenninghoff’s Farm, from the Hot Shops Art Center to Creighton University’s School of Dentistry, partnerships across the city contribute direct benefit to the recovery of an individual affected by injury.
Just as QLI’s workplace culture celebrates and encourages the success of all its individual staff members, its investment in the Omaha community reflects a similar philosophy. A regular participant and sponsor for many of the area’s most exciting events, including Maha Music Festival and Sand in the City, the organization devotes enormous effort into helping cultivate a proud and vibrant Omaha community.
Likewise, a parallel effort is poured into innovating and impacting the city, its landscape, and its professional talent. In 2014, QLI worked closely with Kinghorn Gardens and the City of Omaha Parks and Recreation department to reimagine Glenn Cunningham Lake, helping kickstart an extraordinary multi-phase redesign of the lake’s amenities and accommodations. Included in the additions: a universally accessible kayak launch dock, which allows individuals of all physical ability to enjoy the waterfront from the previously inaccessible lake shoreline.
QLI’s partnerships with the Avenue Scholars Foundation and the University of Nebraska-Omaha create similar positive ripple effects throughout the community. As Omaha continues to lead the nation as an ambitious, entrepreneurial metropolitan city, QLI has helped cultivate and develop professional talent dedicated to causes and impact.
One of the most exciting ways in which QLI connects with the Omaha community is an event truly unlike any other — QLI’s An Evening at the Fair.
“[An Evening at the Fair] was something we wanted to use to educate people about QLI,” said Dawn Dinsdale, a member of QLI’s board of directors and a former honorary chair of the event. “A lot of effort went into blending our fun environment with relevant information about QLI’s services and the kinds of injuries QLI treats.”
The event, designed in 2005 as a corporate “friendraiser,” trades as much on spectacle as it does on fun. Set against the backdrop of country fair decor and a towering indoor hot air balloon, An Evening at the Fair’s guests receive unlimited access to the night’s games, obstacle courses, food and drink for only the price of their ticket. Attendees are guaranteed to walk out carrying armfuls of prizes. But they also have the opportunity to leave with something more: knowledge and passion for QLI’s mission.
Held once every two years, An Evening at the Fair requires months of planning by numerous committees composed of select community partners. The event itself is run in its entirety by QLI staff, allowing guests to build a direct connection to the organization and the men and women who help rebuild lives each day. This unique twist on the traditional philanthropic gala reflects QLI’s mission to forge personal connections to Omaha’s community, young professionals, and cultural leaders.
“[An Evening at the Fair] is fun, it’s different, but it’s also the source of a lot of Omaha pride,” said QLI Board Member Lori Scott. “It makes us all proud that QLI and Omaha – our city – do so much for so many people across the country.”
This September, QLI’s one-of-a-kind event finds a new home in UNO’s Baxter Arena. Just across the street from Aksarben Village, QLI’s event will be proudly hosted in one of Omaha’s most modern and welcoming cultural hubs.
Only in Omaha
Multiple significant expansions to QLI’s campus in 2016 — a cutting-edge gait and mobility technology lab, an on-campus lake for sports and recreation, and Suzanne Scott Family Housing at QLI (a 13,500 square-foot residential complex for families) — represent the hope QLI instills in those whose lives have been shaken by traumatic or severe injury. And yet, those same expansions also represent a defining truth about QLI’s role in the Omaha community and Omaha’s place in the national healthcare landscape.
QLI’s presence — its innovation and industry-leading sophistication — makes Omaha the definitive destination for the brain and spinal cord injury population nationwide. And, in turn, Omaha’s continued support — culturally, collaboratively, and philanthropically — spurs QLI’s growth as a boundary-shattering rehabilitation powerhouse into the future.
It is the sort of mutually beneficial connection QLI couldn’t imagine having anywhere else.
“Because of Omaha’s culture, pride, hospitality, and tradition for work ethic,” Kearns said, “the individuals we serve can reaccess their passions. Because of Omaha, the individuals we serve can get back to life.”
“You could build a hundred different QLI’s in a hundred different cities, but none of them would succeed without Omaha’s unique culture and the support this city provides.”
~ Patricia Kearns
President and CEO