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Dave Denning was already firmly ensconced in a job he had worked at since graduating from high school, one he was steadfastly committed to, when he happened by a physical therapy room one day.
He thought to himself, “I’d like to work at that.” Little did he know, or even dream, that he would become a physical therapist, helping others strive for a more comfortable and active life, while also lifting their spirits.
Denning is employed by Rehab Care in St. Louis, which contracts out to nursing homes and hospitals, but works full-time at Vandalia Rehabilitation and Health Care Center in Vandalia.
How It Began…
While working with his patients, Denning – and his patients – seemed to be enjoying the interaction of friendly, easy conversation and treatment as they went through the exercises.
In the physical therapy area, residents seemed comfortable and at ease with the PT workers. Denning is, in large part, responsible for the these relaxed and friendly attitudes, which go a long way in the acceptance, commitment and successful results of the treatment and exercises needed by the patient.
Denning has been a physical therapist since graduating from Kaskaskia College in 2001 and told how his interest and inspiration was sparked by a casual visit to the facility.
“Actually, I became interested in physical therapy because my wife, Sue, was working as an RN (registered nurse) here at Vandalia Rehab.
“I came in to see her one day, and saw a room full of exercise equipment and residents doing their exercises. I thought, ‘Wow, that looks like that would be neat to get into,'” he said. “But, at that time, I was working at Benner-Nawman, and I didn’t want to quit working there and go back to school.”
A few years later, that factory closed and after working there 19 years, Denning suddenly found himself without a job. He remembered the impression he had when he saw the physical therapy department at work at Vandalia Rehab.
“I thought, this is my chance now to go back to school, and I thought that (physical therapy) would be fun.” And, along with the exercises and treatments, fun is something Denning also provides for the residents.
PT Dave’s Personalized Treatment Plan
“We found that if you make the therapy fun, it makes them more interested and they want to come back,” he said. “You know, people don’t just want to sit here and do exercise after exercise, so we do things. For instance, we have a dart board. We have a little kitchen in here, and we do cooking.”
During the cooking, under supervision, the patients are moving back and forth, using their limbs, arms and hands at the stove, table, microwave, refrigerator and sink, as a part of the rehabilitation program for the patient’s return to their homes.
“Not too long ago, a patient, a fixed us a whole meal,” Denning said. “He fixed us a chicken breast and baked potato dinner, and peanut butter fudge. When people go back home, they have to be able to cook, wash dishes, go back to their normal routine of daily living.”
Denning said that resident came to Vandalia Rehab following an auto accident that had left him paralyzed. “When he left here, he walked out,” Denning said, smiling.
Changes Over the Years
Denning said that while treatments and equipment have remained pretty much the same over the years, there have been some change in the residents.
“It seems like, lately, we have seen younger and younger residents come into the long-term care, from car wrecks and other accidents. It seems like the actual clientele here gets younger,” he said.
“Not everyone is willing to have physical therapy,” Denning said. “Some are reluctant at first. I think some are afraid. Maybe they have been in another facility where the approach is a little different, maybe more aggressive.
“They may be afraid of what may transpire. We’ve had some that will “play ‘possum’ when we go to get them, actually pretend like they are asleep,” he said.
“We try to be subtle, and bring them down here to just sit and talk with them for a while, to calm them down, maybe to get them to do something that they won’t realize is therapy.
To get them to exercise a leg, we might get them to kick a ball or stand up and play catch. Then, after you get acquainted with them and get their trust, then you can work with them. We try to get them to have fun, first.”
One patient who stands out is the young man earlier mentioned. He had multiple fractures in his legs and a fractured rib.
“He couldn’t even get out of bed when he came here,” Denning said. “He is driving a car now, going out to restaurants.
“We’ve had several who came in who couldn’t even get out of bed, who were so sick or had had surgery, that they couldn’t bear weight or would lose their balance. I think it all goes back to winning their trust,” he said.
Another difference is that over the years, when a person went into a nursing home, it was thought that the person would never have a normal life again. These days, the goal is to rehabilitate the residents, so they may leave the nursing home.
The son of Dwight and Darlene Denning, Dave and his siblings were reared south of Bluff City in the rural Pinhook community. He graduated from Vandalia High School.
After graduating with a physical therapy degree in 2001, and working for two years, he went back to school for two years and became a massage therapist. He teaches physical therapy and massage therapy at the college, plus he is a tutor for their physical therapy assistant and massage therapy program when they need help.
“I worked in more than 16 facilities, helping out after graduating,” he said. “I traveled a lot right after I graduated, but I work full-time here now.”
Denning’s personal life has seemed to revolve around nursing homes as well.
“Believe it or not, we met in a nursing home,” Denning said about meeting his wife. “My grandfather, Lewis Denning, was in a long-term care facility, and she was the CNA taking care of him at the time. I was there visiting and she came in to take care of him; that’s how we met.”
Sue has been an RN for about 30 years.
Man of Many Hats
Michelle Vaughan, administrator of Vandalia Rehab, speaks highly of Denning, crediting him and his PT department for part of the very favorable comments and PT clientele the facility attracts.
She said that he “wore many hats,” referring to his enthusiasm for dressing in costumes, including a Santa Claus elf for Christmas and a leprechaun for St. Patrick’s Day.
For Halloween, the PT crew built a large pirate’s ship from large cardboard boxes, which they placed in the front yard of the facility. Then, Denning and a co-worker dressed as pirates, stood by the ship and handed out candy to children.
The PT department also has parties for other special observances, including National Nursing Home Week.
Their efforts are not confined to the nursing home. For Relay for Life last summer, they made a Flintstone car and Denning, and the maintenance man dressed as Fred and Barney and “drove” the Flintmobile around the track.
Dave Denning made lemonade from a lemon when he became a displaced worker as a result of a factory closing, going back to school to follow his heart for an occupation to which he had felt an attraction.
As David Denning provides fun and brightens the days of those for whom he also provides a chance for a better way of life through physical therapy, one can see that his passion for his chosen occupation is matched only by his compassion for those he treats.