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A WakeMed Healthcare Hero: Elizabeth Penny

Every year the Triangle Business Journal (TBJ) recognizes individuals in our area who are true heroes within the healthcare profession.

While the TBJ includes a nice profile and picture of each award winner (available online only to subscribers), we thought you might want to see their actual nominations and read first-hand what makes these individuals so special.

Our third highlighted winner is Elizabeth Penny, LRT/CTRS, RYT, a recreational therapist at the WakeMed Rehabilitation Hospital. She deals primarily with patients who have experienced spinal cord injuries and is known for doing “whatever the patient needs.” From moving furniture and yoga, to miniature golf and pet therapy via her trusty canine companion Scully, Penny is whole-heartedly dedicated to her patients and getting them back on their feet again.

Following is her nomination.

Elizabeth Penny
Recreational Therapist
WakeMed Rehabilitation Therapist

It’s a telling moment when one of Elizabeth Penny’s coworkers stops by and asks where the hot sauce is.

If there’s anything to be known about recreational therapy at WakeMed, from the effectiveness of chair yoga for spinal cord injuries to the location of staff condiments, Penny will likely know. Since she started as a recreational therapist 18 years ago, there’s little she hasn’t attempted to help her patients get back on their feet and living their lives.

Elizabeth deals primarily with patients coming off spinal cord injuries. Working with inpatients, she typically has no more than nine sessions to help them start to regain basic functions before they are discharged. Each patient is different and requires a unique approach.

“What do I do to help people?” she says, repeating the question put to her.

“I’ve helped patients move furniture, I’ve arranged to purchase a wheelchair off Craigslist, I’ve taken people to the dentist, I took a pediatric patient to play Putt-Putt,” she begins, rattling off the numerous and tasks she has performed under the rec therapy umbrella. She pauses, realizing the list could go on for quite some time, and says, “I do whatever the patient needs.”

Her arsenal of skills and services is constantly growing. Several years ago she turned to yoga to help with her own pain management. It worked, so she figured it would work for her patients. She became a yoga instructor, recently became certified in chair yoga (she spends every other Sunday conducting a class at a local nursing home), and is working on becoming a certified yoga therapist, which requires 1,000 hours of study and a 10-day practicum in India.

She’s also certified in HeartMath, a biofeedback system aimed at helping patients with stress management, and is in the processes of becoming a certified personal trainer.

“It couldn’t hurt,” she says of the latter.

But the biggest weapon in her arsenal is her partner of more than five years, Scully. Scully is a black lab/golden retriever mix, a therapy dog trained by Canine Companions International who makes Elizabeth’s patients forget the sometimes difficult and challenging work of therapy.

Elizabeth has a set caseload, generally seeing seven to 10 assigned patients three times a week. But she and Scully may help twice that many patients at the request of fellow therapists whose patients need a little something extra. A little Scully therapy.

On a Tuesday morning, Elizabeth and Scully spend a half hour with a patient recovering from an aneurysm. Scully hops up on a table before the seated patient as Elizabeth begins asking a range of questions, from “So tell me why you’re here?” to “Do you have a dog?”

“I try to find something important to them,” she says. “It helps get their mind off the challenges of therapy.”

Elizabeth has the patient brush Scully, first with her left hand and then with her right hand, which is weaker. There’s physical therapy at work, to be sure; there’s emotional therapy as well. The patient starts to talk about her dog, who she hasn’t seen since she entered the hospital. Her strokes become more pronounced. She kisses Scully on the nose. Then she does something no one has seen her do since she entered WakeMed.

“You smiled!” beams an assistant who has been working with the woman.

A few minutes later, Elizabeth and Scully are flagged down by another therapist. Her patient had surgery for a brain tumor, and she’s been trying to get him more comfortable leaning forward.

She cuts up an apple, puts it on a towel, and places it on a stool to the man’s left. Scully lies in front of him, about four feet away. Penny instructs the man to reach across his body with his right hand, pick up a piece of apple, then lean forward and give it to Scully, who takes the apple upon the release word: “OK.” At first, Scully reaches to meet the patient half way. Then, Scully stays put, making the man come all the way to him. At one point, the towel drops to the floor.

“Can you pick that up?” Elizabeth asks. “No,” he replies. “I think you can,” she answers. The man looks at Scully, reaches down with his right hand and retrieves the towel.

“People are funny,” Elizabeth says later. “They think they’re doing it for the dog, but they’re really doing it for themselves. They’ll do things for Scully that they’ll never do for a therapist.”

Chair yoga, moving furniture, playing Putt-Putt, employing the wiles of man’s best friend.