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Perinatal Center gives peace of mind

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Joe Poelker

Release Date: 4/4/2012

Physical therapy patient claims he's getting 'best of the best'

Robert Van Almsick finishes a physical therapy session.

Robert Van Almsick finishes a physical therapy session.

Robert Van Almsick slowly rises from his wheelchair to a standing position, with the mechanical assistance of Litegait.  This mechanical device, partnered with a slow-speed treadmill, helps physical therapy patients practice their walking skills. 

A young woman stands beside him, encouraging him with soft words and smiles.  She adjusts the heavy-duty support straps that encircle him and provide a safety “parachute,” in case he lets go of the handholds. 

But Van Almsick isn’t letting go; this isn’t his first PT rodeo.  The youthful-looking 62-year-old has been in the Acute Rehab Department of St. Anthony’s Medical Center since early January, following emergency open-heart surgery that left him weak and unsteady on his feet.   He’s in the final stretch now – only one more week before he returns to his home in south county and his wife, Susan.

“I wanted to go home right after the surgery – I didn’t want to go through rehab,” Van Almsick said; “but my wife said, ‘Shut up and do what they tell you’ – so I did,” he adds with a grin.

Always active, Van Almsick spent 35 years with the St. Louis County Police Department, then retired and joined the Lakeshire Police Department as a part-time officer. He also works for Enterprise, picking up and delivering cars.  “I work now when I want to, and I do it because it’s fun,” he said.  “I’m at the age where if it isn’t fun, I don’t do it.”

It was hard for the normally energetic Van Almsick to accept when he was sidelined from all the “fun.”  He said he didn’t realize just how weak he was or how helpful the physical therapy would be. 

“During the first few days of therapy, I was exhausted,” he said.  “Every day the therapists pushed me to the limit – but they didn’t shove.  If you weren’t feeling well, they would back off.  When I didn’t make my goal, they’d tell me, ‘Don’t feel badly, you’ll make it next time’.  My wife told me that every step I took was one step closer to my own front door; and, pretty soon, I wanted to walk farther every day.  Now I’m doing three hours a day, six days a week, and I have so much more energy.” 

Van Almsick credits much of his new-found strength to Jill Knapp, the young woman who encouraged him as he navigated the Litegait machine.  Knapp, 23, is a physical therapy student at St. Louis University, pursuing her doctorate degree.  She has been fulfilling her clinical requirements for direct patient care in St. Anthony’s Acute Rehab and will graduate in May.

Knapp, originally from Colorado but living in St. Louis for the past six years, says her mom inspired her to go into the field.  “She’s a physical therapist working in home health care, and I saw how much she loved it, how much joy she got out of it,” Knapp said.  “I applied to St. Anthony’s for my clinical rotation, because a friend of mine told me how wonderful it was for her.  You see a wide variety of patients and work hands-on with them every day.  It gives you the opportunity to learn from really great teachers and to apply your knowledge before you’re out on your own.”

Knapp works with about three patients a day, five days a week.  Working under the supervision of a licensed staff physical therapist, she helps coordinate the patient’s treatment plan, works with the patient to overcome deficits and documents the patient’s progress.

“I love being able to watch the patient progress, day by day,” Knapp said.  “Robert was very weak after his surgery – he was barely able to stand; but just look at him now!”

She shoots him a beaming smile, which he shoots right back.  He shares his theory about how to get the “best of the best” care. 

“When they asked me if I would mind working with a student therapist, I said no, that would be fine,” Van Almsick said.  “I figured students are young, enthusiastic and exposed to the latest techniques.  Then they hook them up with the most experienced therapists as mentors – the superstars – and I wind up getting the best, trained by the best.  All of the therapists here are good and some are great.  Jill is going to be one of the truly great therapists.”

For more information about the student clinical program in physical or occupational therapy offered at St. Anthony’s Medical Center, call Sandy Lehn at 314-525-4577.

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