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Roll in, walk out

St. Catherine's has been putting people back on their feet for three decades

Fernando Pacheco does leg lifts, with oversight by Gemma Longfellow, senior physical therapist at St. Catherine's Rehabilitation Hospital in North Miami.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Fernando Pacheco does leg lifts, with oversight by Gemma Longfellow, senior physical therapist at St. Catherine's Rehabilitation Hospital in North Miami. "They’ll do whatever it takes to help you get better," he says.

NORTH MIAMI | Asked about the purpose of St. Catherine's Rehabilitation Hospital, Maria Miranda had two replies.

One was straightforward: "To minister to the suffering, and to nurture a relationship with God."

The other was crisper: "You roll in and you walk out."

As Physical Therapy Month likewise rolled on in October, St. Catherine's and other branches of Catholic Health Services mustered 3,000 staffers to care for more than 6,000 persons a day — the largest provider of its kind in the southeastern United States.

But as a Catholic organization, and a ministry of the Archdiocese of Miami, the important part isn’t numbers — it's people. Not only the patients but the staffers.

"They’ll do whatever it takes to help you get better," said Fernando Pacheco, a patient who is recovering from a spinal inflammation. "I think it's part of a mission of caring for the patient as a person."

Personal care

St. Catherine's is part of the Villa Maria Nursing Center, which in turn is run by Catholic Health Services. The non-profit, now in its 30th year, is spread throughout Broward and Miami-Dade counties, and includes healthcare centers, home health agencies, assisted living, hospice care, even two cemeteries.

"We provide the largest post-acute continuum of care in the southeastern United States," Miranda said.

But the organizational size doesn't get in the way of personal service, as Pacheco learned this year.

His symptoms began in April with a cold and mild fever. After two weeks, his doctor put him on antibiotics; three days later, he awoke with "excruciating pain" in his thigh muscles.

A hospital gave him pain pills, but he lost control of his legs within days. And it got worse: "I couldn't even roll over in bed or hold a glass of water."

A neurologist finally diagnosed his condition as transverse myelitis and put him on steroids, which quelled the inflammation. But to recover, he still needed physical therapy. At St. Catherine’s, he began a regimen of three hours a day, six days a week: stretching, grasping a float in a pool or doing slow kicks on a knee extension machine.

The thrice-weekly pool work, called aquatherapy, helps therapists like Gemma Longfellow isolate and exercise specific muscle groups of a patient. "With every session, he's stronger and getting better," she said of Pacheco.

Now, the man who couldn't hold a glass or roll over in bed can walk with canes. And he can't say enough good about St. Catherine's. Even small details impressed him — like the day Longfellow manually massaged the tightness out of the muscles in an arm.

"From the first morning, the coordination and level of care have been extraordinary," Pacheco said.

Physical therapist assistant Randal Koerner helps Judy Winters out of her wheelchair onto a walker.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Physical therapist assistant Randal Koerner helps Judy Winters out of her wheelchair onto a walker. "They're always saying 'Try a little more; take a little step'," Winters says of the therapists at St. Catherine's.

He also praised the religious facet at St. Catherine's. The facility’s chaplain, Father Parker Ogboe, celebrates daily Mass in the chapel. The whole staff stops for morning prayer for two minutes every day. And if a patient asks for a Protestant pastor or a rabbi, the staff will call one in.

"For a patient, it's important to go through physical and spiritual healing," Pacheco said.

Miranda, vice president of public relations for Catholic Health Services, agreed. "Prayer is medicine."

Serving the elderly

St. Catherine's is also one of the few places that does physical therapy for the elderly, said Longfellow, program director for geriatric residency. St. Catherine's provides mentoring for new graduates of medical schools, including those of Nova Southeastern University and the University of Miami.

Longfellow noted that the general population is aging, and more of them will need therapy for their particular needs.

"Graduates often want to specialize in sports or pediatric therapy," she said. "We want to give them more exposure in working with geriatric physical therapy."

That was a special blessing for Judy Winters after July 14, when she fell and broke her right femur, hip and lower back. Winters, 77, was hospitalized for a week, then went to a rehab center, then back to the hospital for internal bleeding.

Finally she turned to St. Catherine's and Villa Maria, where she says she has thrived in the hands of the therapists.

"They care so much for patients," she said. "Everyone knows your name, and they're always saying 'Try a little more; take a little step.' Very encouraging."

Helping the community

The satisfaction even reaches to the staff itself; most of the therapists have been at St. Catherine's more than a decade. They mention the "family atmosphere" and the connection with the community.

The latter is a special draw for physical therapy assistant Randal Koerner. He lives in North Miami, as do many of the patients.

"I see them in a market or walking by the bay, or weeding gardens, when they couldn't do that before," Koerner said. "I love seeing that."

His work at St. Catherine's, 19 years and counting, is his third career. He first earned a degree in economics at Hunter College in New York, then worked in an air freight business for 15 years.

"Toward the end, I didn’t want to get out of bed," Koerner said. "Now I do. I'm in an organization that helps the community. I can't think of a better place to grow old in doing a profession." 

Physical therapist assistant Randal Koerner, center, buddies up with two patients at St. Catherine's Rehabilitation Hospital in North Miami. From left are Fernando Pacheco and Judy Winters.

Photographer: JIM DAVIS | FC

Physical therapist assistant Randal Koerner, center, buddies up with two patients at St. Catherine's Rehabilitation Hospital in North Miami. From left are Fernando Pacheco and Judy Winters.


Comments from readers

Tim Wallace - 10/22/2016 12:09 PM
Thank you for the article Jim.

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