Milwaukee VA Medical Center
Therapy through Legos
Jeff Haagensen used to despise Legos.
“Growing up, I 100% hated them,” he said. “I was more into the G.I. Joe stuff.”
But when the U.S. Army Veteran found himself in the Milwaukee VA Medical Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Center, recovering from a suicide attempt that left him a paraplegic, he needed something to occupy his mind.
At the suggestion of Dr. Ken Lee, head of SCI, he reluctantly agreed to try building a Legos model.
“I hated it (at first),” he said. “I usually don’t have the patience for this kind of stuff. But I was basically bedridden and didn’t have a choice.”
The 42-year-old started with cars, but it wasn’t long until the self-professed “huge” fan of “Stars Wars” was building anything and everything attached to the movie franchise.
“They were some of the cooler Lego sets you could buy,” he said.
Haagensen is now – in his own words – obsessed with the intricate Lego models. During his stay in SCI, the models overflowed his room, and many were put in hallway display cases.
Now, three years after his hobby began, he has built hundreds of the models.
His passion will be on display for everyone to see May 3-7 at the War Memorial Center, 720 N. Lincoln Memorial Drive, Milwaukee.
And he will take center stage the next day – the unofficial “Star Wars” Day of May the Fourth (as in “May the Force be With You”) during a reception for local officials, dignitaries and the SCI staff at the Milwaukee VA.
Hosted by the Wisconsin chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the display aims to draw attention to the therapeutic effects of hobbies for severely injured Veterans.
“We support recreation therapy and adaptive sports to help our Veterans to establish their normal life,” said Scott Griffith, government relations director for the Wisconsin PVA. “Where do they get their energy? In Jeff’s case, it’s Legos.”
It was Griffith who connected Jeff’s passion with the “Star Wars” date of May 4 and set the wheels in motion.
While Jeff’s models will be the focus, Griffith said the work of Milwaukee VA therapists and the PVA also will be showcased.
“It’s really about educating the community on the things we do for our Veterans to help them establish that new normal – whatever that is,” he said.
Scouting groups have also been invited to the exhibit, and the kids will be able to build Lego versions of Pinewood Derby cars and race them.
While Jeff’s Lego building is a bit different from traditional hobbies, it has the same therapeutic benefits, Lee said.
“It helped him pull through, to concentrate on his hobby, and he really maximized it,” he said.
But what’s ironic about Jeff’s story is that the Legos weren’t part of his actual therapy. Instead, he started building the models during his downtime – those hours when he was alone in his room.
“This is not particularly a rehab tool, but it’s something that helped him get through the rehab,” Lee said, noting that anything that helps keep patients focused on their rehabilitation and out of depression is beneficial.
“Our desire to excel… is an inherent part of our human nature,” Lee said. “It’s important to have goals outside of rehab. Any hobbies, such as Lego building, keep a person out of depression.”
And Jeff noticed that as well.
“This kind of turned into therapy,” Jeff said. “It helps me keep my mind off my back pain and stuff like that.”
Jeff served from 1998 to 2011, which included two tours in Kosovo, two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
That service took a toll on him in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder. To cope, he turned to alcohol and drugs. The suicide attempt came in 2015.
He is still working on his recovery – “it’s a fluid situation,” he said -- and the model building helps with that.
“It’s an obsession, definitely an obsession,” he said, estimating he spends countless hours each day building the models.
And once they are built, they stay built; he doesn’t disassemble them. And while he’d love to tackle some of the big “Star Wars” models, he said there’s no room in his house.
While the majority of pieces are from “Star Wars,” Jeff also has cars, including a Batmobile, a James Bond Astin Martin and “Fast and Furious” vehicles.
There are also set pieces from television shows, including “The Flintstones” and “Friends.”
Jeff plans to be at the War Memorial Center most of the week, meeting with the public when he can, though he admitted that prospect is a little daunting.
“It’s stressing me out,” he said, saying he is both excited and nervous, though “a little more nervous than excited. I’m not a big people person, so it’s going to be interesting.”
Meanwhile, the PVA and the SCI staff want to celebrate Jeff’s accomplishments.
“Look at this guy and his journey and where he is now,” Griffith said. “This is a good thing.”
Lee and Milwaukee VA recreation therapist Erinn Kulba agreed.
“It’s super cool that he did this,” Kulba said. “Having something to reshift and refocus your mind gives you an outlet that brings you enjoyment.
“Even if it’s in the littlest things … it’s a start to being able to find something that works for you.”
“This can give hope to people who have such a devastating, life-changing result from a spinal cord injury,” Lee said. “This will be a positive and encouraging story to hear and see.”