CMC's rehabilitation unit celebrates 35 years of change

Published 5/30/2018

Published by the Union LeaderCTA_RMU35anniiv_withcolor_977x516.png

There were many hugs and warm greetings as Lois Dugan and others returned to Catholic Medical Center’s Rehabilitation Medicine Unit (RMU) for its 35th anniversary party earlier this month. 

Dugan and her husband were among many former patients, nurses and therapists who reminisced with current staff on a unit that has changed significantly since opening in the spring of 1983. 

The RMU was founded at CMC by Easterseals 35 years ago. At the time, it was the first inpatient acute rehab facility in New Hampshire. 

Dr. Zubin Batlivala, affectionately known around the RMU as “Dr. B,” is the unit’s medical director.

“When the unit started, the patients were easier to treat,” he said. “Now we have much more complex patients.”

These days, patients recovering from car accidents, other injuries and joint replacements may spend time at a skilled nursing facility before going to outpatient rehabilitation. 

The RMU, meanwhile, works with patients recovering from stroke, amputation, spinal cord injuries, and patients whose bodies are frail from long stays in the intensive care unit. 

“In the old days,” Batlivala said, “if you had a stroke you stayed in bed. That’s not the thinking now. When the RMU first opened, a stroke or spinal cord patient could be hospitalized for six months or longer. Now we know that the sooner you start their rehab and get them up and moving, the better their outcomes will be.”

On an in-hospital rehab unit like the RMU, patients who are recovering from major medical events get coordinated care in one place. While they’re getting medical care, specialist consults, follow-up tests and medication management, they’re also getting intense rehab, three hours a day. 

“I’m able to walk, to move well again, because of them” said Dugan, who has been treated on the RMU several times for back pain and surgery. “They push gently and they listen. They listen through the laughs and the tears.”

LNA and RMU department coordinator Laura Hayes has worked on the unit for 18 years.

“People come to us in vulnerable, life-changing times,” she says. “People are scared, but then you see the progression. You can be off for a few days and come back and see the change, the improvements. With the personal level of care and the length of stay, you become close to your patients. That’s what makes the work so rewarding.”

It’s possible that nobody on the RMU has seen more progress — in the industry and in patients — than Judy Sheehan, RN, BSN, CRRN.

She has worked in the department since the day it opened. “As the years have evolved, so has rehab. I graduated in 1977 and I didn’t even have rehab in my training. It was new to all of us, and we all learned as we grew.” 

Sheehan recalls, in the beginning, patients went home for the weekend as part of their therapy. Like Dr. Batlivala, however, she has seen the patients on the RMU become increasingly complex; patients who, decades ago, would have faced very grim outcomes. 

“But still you see a patient come in, in a debilitated state, and in a week or two weeks it’s amazing what happens. Between the physical therapy and medical care, they walk out of here. It’s amazing to see. “ 

Looking back on 35 years of work, Easterseals NH President and CEO Larry Gammon says: “The RMU highlights the long-standing partnership between CMC and Easterseals that has grown over the years, and continues to this day.” 

It’s been 25 years since Hubert Gall of Merrimack was a patient, but he stays in touch with some of his caregivers. He spent 40 days on the unit, treated for a spinal cord injury due to a congenital disorder. 

He and his wife “come now and then to say hello and to show that at 84 years old, I’m still kicking,” he said.

Like Gall, Dugan is no stranger around the RMU. “They gave me my life back and I consider them more than nurses. They’re all friends.”

photo: Lois and Bill Dugan talk with Rehabilitation Medicine Unit Medical Director Dr. Zubin Batlivala at the unit's 35th anniversary celebration at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester.