Elaine: Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

Image of Elaine.

Elaine: Not Your Typical 74-Year-Old

Staying active is a priority for Elaine Barron, now 74. When she broke her pelvis in 2014 after slipping and falling on ice, she was referred to UPMC for physical therapy. When doctors suggested hip replacement surgery, she went for a second opinion with a UPMC physiatrist. At her first appointment, she was delighted to see a poster in the office with the message: “100 Reasons Why You Need to Exercise.” “I knew then I was in the right place,” says Elaine. “Going there has been life changing.”

A Nasty Fall

Elaine has always been active — professionally and physically. After 36 years as a public school English teacher, she started a new career as an English education supervisor at the University of Pittsburgh. She exercises regularly, including swimming, Pilates, and cycling on an exercise bike.

“I’m not your typical 74-year-old,” says Elaine. “I’ve always worked and I’ve always exercised.”

But in January 2014, a nasty fall on an icy Shadyside street threatened to derail her routine. Hospitalized with a broken pelvis, Elaine spent about a week at UPMC Montefiore in intensive inpatient rehabilitation through the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute. For months after her release, she continued receiving outpatient physical therapy in Oakland.

“I couldn’t walk for 12 weeks,” says Elaine. “Because of my regular exercise regimen and the excellent care that I received through inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation, I totally recovered.”

Avoiding Surgery with PM&R

Although her pelvis healed without surgery, several orthopaedic doctors who reviewed her x-rays recommended hip replacement surgery after detecting severe arthritis with signs of bone-on-bone rubbing. Elaine also has scoliosis in her lower back, which she believed would complicate her recovery.

“I was not going to have surgery,” says Elaine. “My goal was to keep moving.”

Elaine’s physical therapist encouraged her to see physiatrist Gwendolyn Sowa, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at UPMC and director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute. A physiatrist, or PM&R doctor, looks at a person’s whole body to identify what’s causing pain and manage and treat the issue.

“Dr. Sowa is a good listener and so compassionate and knowledgeable. From the beginning, she respected the fact that I was active and had a desire to stay that way,” says Elaine. “The values of the Rehabilitation Institute are a perfect fit for me. I think the idea of strengthening muscles to take away the pain and help you to be stronger and more agile is so smart.”

In addition to assessing Elaine’s condition, Dr. Sowa worked with her physical therapist to recommend treatments and exercise. She also had Elaine meet with a dietitian to determine what nutrients might be missing in her diet.

“It’s not hocus pocus. She’s a medical doctor who can help your body get stronger without medication and surgery,” says Elaine.

Continuing Care

In 2016, Elaine was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy and radiation treatment. To prevent recurrence of cancer, she was placed on hormone blockers that caused joint stiffness that grew increasingly worse over the years.

“The longer I stayed on the medicine, the more disabling it became. I was able to do my activities, but I had to super hydrate,” says Elaine. “Swimming was my salvation and Pilates strengthened my core. But after walking a mile my right hip would be so sore.”

Elaine continued seeing Dr. Sowa for yearly checkups and care when needed. In early June 2022 after five years on hormone blockers, she met with Dr. Sowa and her medical oncologist to discuss the risks and benefits of discontinuing the medicine. They agreed the side effects were not worth the low risk of recurrence. It was time to get off the medicine.

Dr. Sowa also determined Elaine needed physical therapy focused on her right hip. She recommended Jeff Rothman, DPT, OCS, director, outpatient rehabilitation in Squirrel Hill.

Life Changing Medicine

Elaine began twice weekly physical therapy sessions with exercises aimed at improving balance and strengthening and stretching the muscles in her hips. She quickly noticed a difference.

“Jeff is so experienced and so smart. He immediately pinpointed the muscles I need to work on,” says Elaine. “It’s almost miraculous. The muscles around my hips are stronger and I’m more mindful of engaging my muscles, abs, and glutes.”

Today, Elaine is grateful for the ongoing care she has received from her UPMC physiatrists and physical therapists. She continues to work, including visiting area public schools to observe student interns, and exercises regularly.

“Physical medicine and rehabilitation — that listening and looking at each patient individually and figuring out the best way to help each patient move forward — works,” says Elaine.

“The impact has been transformational. Without that care, I think I would be quite disabled. Instead, I lead a very active lifestyle. Being 74 sounds old, but I don’t feel old.”