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Marie McCormick

Stamford, CT
  • Marie McCormick in the photo 1
  • Marie McCormick in the photo 2
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Back in the Game

By Dr. Marie L. McCormick

Surgeon: Aleksey Dvorzhinskiy

Physical Therapist: Marlena Albanese

February 24, 2024

When my physical therapist at HSS, Marlena Albanese, said that I was the “poster child for the success of physical therapy,” and suggested that I write a ‘Back in the Game’ story, my first response was, “I don’t have a game.” After giving it some thought, I decided to share my HSS story. Maybe there will be someone in pain, who is afraid of surgery, who thinks there is no help or hope for them, who will read this and think of the possibilities for them.

In 2018, I had spine surgery for severe kyphoscoliosis (67% curve), performed by Dr. Han Jo Kim at HSS. Prior to the surgery, I had great difficulty and pain standing for more than a few minutes, walking more than a few feet, and even sitting for any period of time. I had to give up working as a psychotherapist and university professor. This was a devastating loss for me.

Before meeting Dr. Kim, I had been told by other physicians that surgery was not an option. When I told him this at the consultation he chuckled and assured me it was quite possible and showed me before and after x-rays of spine conditions like mine.

The surgery was transformational. I gained three inches in height and could stand straight for the first time in years. With physical therapy I regained my capacity to walk, stand, and sit like a ‘normal’ person, with no accommodations required to ‘do’ my life.

Fast forward to 2023. A serious fall at home shattered my left proximal humerus (upper arm and shoulder). This was a traumatic injury that required immediate intervention. After going to my local ED to have the arm x-rayed and put in a sling, I called Dr. John Lyden at HSS, the surgeon who had replaced my right hip in 2017. He saw me immediately, and after consultation, referred me to the surgeon who would repair my shattered shoulder, Aleksey Dvorzhinskiy.

Dr. Dvorzhinskiy, who was available immediately by cell phone, spent several calls with me discussing the pros and cons of surgery, and the possible outcomes for my recovery of function with and without surgery. I opted for the surgery. After a seven-hour surgery including multiple screws and two plates, I was in recovery and slowly waking up. I spent several days at HSS, receiving the responsive, skilled care I knew to expect.

After three days I had to be transferred to NYP-WCMC for a chest tube resulting from a collapsed lung that became apparent at HSS a few days post-op. While this was not anyone’s expectation for me, the transfer was necessary, and the teams at both hospitals took every step to ensure that I received timely and appropriate care.

What meant so much to me during my time at WCMC was Dr. Dvorzhinskiy’s daily visits. He sat and spent time talking with me about any questions I had about the surgery, and listened to my reflections on what I was experiencing. Besides his exceptional skill as a trauma surgeon, his empathic manner was important in those first few days after surgery.

Two weeks after the surgery (late May 2023) my stiches were removed, and I was able to begin Physical Therapy (PT). Although I live in Connecticut—a two-hour drive to HSS—I wanted to receive PT where I had just undergone a complex surgery, and where I knew the therapists would have the skills to help me gain back the best and most functioning of my arm/shoulder.

My therapist was Marlena Albanese. When we met, I felt she had an empathic understanding of what I had experienced. She said she had read my chart, seen the extent of the injury/surgery, and that I had detoured to WCMC for a chest tube, acknowledging how difficult that must have been.

We began with very basic stretches focused on beginning range of motion. Her plan for me was guided by Dr. Dvorzhinskiy’s notes about weight bearing and expectable Range of Motion (ROM). This program of exercises, based on my surgeon’s instructions and my progress, continued twice weekly throughout the summer. During this period, pain was a familiar companion. I used prescription pain relief and ice, ice, ice, for most of this time.

After about two months of twice weekly PT, twice daily exercises at home, two follow-up visits to my surgeon, and some degree of pain every day, I knew I was getting discouraged. I told this to my surgeon, who told me that my injury was severe and very painful. Dr. Dvorzhinskiy validated my pain and discouragement, rather than trying to talk me out of it. He said it would take a few more months of working at recovery to feel better. This mattered a lot. Happy talk was not what I needed. I resolved to work through the pain and limitations of the injury to recover as much as I could of my normal arm function, without pain.

Next PT session I went in and told Marlena I wanted to “up my game.” She said we could get more aggressive with the ROM exercises. We did, and instead of causing more pain, my pain began to subside as my ROM increased. It was amazing and wonderful! By the end of August I transitioned to once weekly PT (continuing my twice daily exercise program at home). At the end of September, I transitioned again to PT every other week.

On November 1, 2023, I was discharged from PT with greatly improved ROM, and little to no pain. On my last day, I was able to stretch out and up my left arm to give an actual high ‘high 5’ to my therapist and one of her colleagues! I thanked Marlena for her work with me and she responded, as she often did with “It’s all you. You did this.” She also told me that because I chose PT at HSS instead of closer to home (a four-hour round trip for my half hour sessions), I chose to get the best care/rehabilitation post-surgery for a serious injury—which was completely the truth behind my choice, despite the logistical difficulties.

Although I was able to bathe and dress using my left arm ‘normally’ without compensating, do activities in and out of home, and give full hugs to my husband and adult children, I was anxious about leaving PT, feeling like I had farther to go. Marlena agreed, but said the improvement I would make would come from diligent effort on my part by following my home program of exercises twice daily every day. She also said that in early spring, if I wanted, I could return to do strength training that would enhance my functioning. She was right.

After a follow-up visit with Dr Dvorzhinskiy in late January 2024, during which he said my arm was “completely healed” and that I could do “whatever I wanted with it,” I discussed returning to PT, as Marlena had suggested in November, for strength training. He said I could stop where I was; that I had gained the ROM expectable for my injury, but strength training would get me about 10 degrees more, and support my ability to function at my highest level. Nevertheless, the decision was mine.

I decided to continue with PT to take myself as far as I could go. I returned to PT at the end of February, 2024.

After doing her initial assessment Marlena was exuberant about the improvement in ROM since she had seen me last. She noted that having had an excellent surgeon, being willing to travel to HSS for months for PT, and working my Home PT Program had made a big difference in the outcome for me to this point. We then agreed that I could benefit from 6-8 weeks of strength training, and told me I was the “poster child” for the benefits of diligent PT for recovery after a traumatic injury.

And so, I write this story of hurt, and healing and the healers who made it possible.

HSS has been pivotal in giving me back my ability to live my best life—pain-free, fully functional in all my daily activities, able to walk any distance I choose, stand comfortably, reach up and out, extend my arm to hail a cab or wave at a neighbor, and to give and to receive big hugs from the people I love. So, I guess that’s truly MY game.