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Physical Therapist Helps Patients Reach Healthcare Goals, Reclaim Lives 

Far too often, Joanna Donato, DPT, sees how pain and physical limitations brought about by an injury or illness drain people’s sense of hope.

As she works one-on-one with her physical therapy patients, she knows how important it is to “help them access the deeper part of themselves that they didn’t know was in there” to restore hope and reclaim their lives.

“Just knowing you can overcome something that’s hard and something that hurts with the right tools, with the right plan, and with the right support, it definitely helps to get that out of people,” said Joanna (pictured, right). 

Her career as a physical therapist was sparked by her determination to recover from a sports-related injury. She turned to a friend who was a physical therapist for help.

Joanna found herself interested in the “why of the body and the connection of the anatomy to functional importance.” She was hooked and earned a doctor of physical therapy degree as well as certification as a lymphedema therapist, providing specialized care to patients with this incurable condition that causes swelling in parts of the body.

Joanna spent the first phase of her career at an outpatient sports medicine clinic. She made the transition to VNA Care’s home health care team seven years ago and never looked back.

She appreciates having the time to get to know her patients. Joanna cares for residents of Boston. She sometimes finds patients living in incredibly difficult situations. There are instances of neglect, and homes that are in complete disrepair. “In home health care, you’re looking at the whole person — the social, physical, and financial aspects — and the quality of life,” said Joanna. “In the outpatient setting, if someone comes in for knee pain from running six miles, you’re isolated to that knee and that run.”

Challenges beyond a patient’s diagnosis can dramatically impact their ability to heal. VNA Care’s approach to helping patients remain independent at home includes case management services.

Clinicians, including social workers and nurses, help patients overcome a wide range of barriers to improved health by linking them to resources, such as free and subsidized medications, as well as serving as advocates and offering support. Charitable gifts aid VNA Care’s clinicians in helping some of the most vulnerable members of our community.

Joanna’s patients range in age from early 30s to over 90 years old. Some have experienced a traumatic accident, like being hit by a car, while others are dealing with chronic conditions such as heart failure or recovering from knee or hip replacement surgery.

Among them was a woman who’d gone through chemotherapy, which impacted her mobility. She spent her days isolated in a tiny room on the second floor of her home, sitting in a reclining chair with a commode nearby. Joanna focused on helping the woman improve her mobility while her colleague, Andrea Segel, OT, addressed the patient’s ability to perform activities of daily living.

The patient slowly made progress and could eventually get out of the chair on her own, walk down the hallway, and use the bathroom and shower with adaptive equipment. The patient was also able to walk to the stairs and get on a stairlift to the first floor where she could once again use the kitchen and the rest of the house.

Joanna said, “Helping patients access parts of their home they haven’t been able to use is rewarding on a different level. You’re changing someone’s life.”

Another patient was in her 80s and had been independent until she fell and broke her hip. She was in a wheelchair, and relied on her son for nearly everything, including lifting her out of the wheelchair to get into bed.

“She was a fighter,” remembered Joanna. Over the course of six months, Joanna focused on the patient’s goal of getting back on her feet.

Their efforts were successful. During their last visit, the patient used a walker to take a stroll outside with Joanna and had plans to return to Tuesday night Bingo with her friends. Joanna remembers their immense gratitude, but is quick to recognize the dedicated efforts of patients and their loved ones in reaching their goals. She added, “It’s a team effort.”

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