A Day in the Life of...
Physical Therapist Clara Gaspari
Physical therapist Clara Gaspari (left) with patient Nicole Jones.
Clara Gaspari, PT, a senior physical therapist at NYU Langone Medical Center's Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, works with some of the most challenging cases: amputees. She is often at their side, physically and mentally, as they strive to rise from their wheelchairs, their prosthetic limbs beneath them, and walk again—however shaky those first steps may be. "Clara bubbles with personality and warmth," says Kate Parkin, PT, senior director of therapy services. "In this area of clinical expertise, she's one of our best."
9:30 a.m. Like all of Rusk's 60 or so physical therapists, Clara spends most of her day in the physical therapy gym, where patients move from one station to another, using treadmills, free weights, Nautilus machines, and parallel bars in their individualized sessions. Nicole Jones enters the gym in a motorized wheelchair, smiling broadly. She is a double amputee, with two prosthetic legs made of titanium that bend at the knee and ankle. Upon seeing Clara, her eyes widen with excitement. "Clara, this weekend, I cleaned both of my bathrooms by myself!" she proclaims. "You would have been so proud." Careful not to offer too much praise this early in the session—motivation must be measured—Clara turns to humor: "Oh, yeah? Can you come clean mine this weekend?" They both chuckle as Jones rises from her wheelchair, putting weight on her prosthetics. Her first task is to walk halfway across the room and back with the assistance of a walker—a long haul.
9:40 a.m. With an under-the-arms bear hug from another therapist, a nearby patient is transferred from his wheelchair to the parallel bars just a few feet away. He takes three tiny steps before returning to his chair in exhaustion. Clara reminds Jones that she was at this stage just a few months ago, shortly after the car accident that claimed her legs. Her injuries were so severe, in fact, that she was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. "We've come a long way," Jones admits. "That reminds me, Clara. I got you something. It's a little elephant that says, 'You lift me up to higher grounds.' "
9:50 a.m. Two exercises later, Jones is standing at the base of four steps—a ministaircase—her prosthetic feet encased in a pair of Asics running shoes. "This is the hardest part of my day," she sighs. Jones grabs hold of the rails and attempts to deposit her mostly mechanical right leg on the first step. After she hoists the rest of her body to this new elevation, she lifts her left leg to the next step. All the while, Clara is behind her to ensure that she's stable. By the fourth step, Jones is perspiring and breathless. "Just walking with prosthetics requires about 300% more energy," Clara tells Jones as she hands her a cup of water. The session winds down, with another scheduled for three days later. One of Nicole Jones' goals is to walk up the stairs of her own home. Clara's goal is to see her do it.
10:30 a.m. Clara, a native of Brazil, explains during a break that she has worked at Rusk for five years. She became interested in amputees after visiting a region of Cambodia where land mines had cost many people their limbs. "Many of them had very heavy wooden prosthetics with almost no padding, but it was enough to change their lives," she says. "Some of the prosthetic limbs used here are equipped with computer chips, and sometimes you can barely tell a patient has a prosthetic."
2:00 p.m. Clara greets a new patient—not an amputee, but a woman with Parkinson's disease. To test the patient's balance, she asks her to rise from her chair with her eyes closed. The woman is visibly nervous. "Don't worry," says Clara. "I'll catch you if you fall."