Therapist, patient duo run clinic treating spine, brain injuries
March 26, 2014
MACOMB TOWNSHIP — As medical professionals and business partners, Polly Swingle and Charlie Parkhill are a bit of an odd couple.
But like any odd couple worthy of the title, they make a great team because wherever one of them may be lacking, the other picks up the slack. While Swingle has years of experience administering physical therapy and rehabilitation for people in need, Parkhill has been on the receiving end of it for more than a decade. While she had never run a business before meeting her partner, he came from a long career as a professional consultant and financial expert.
Together, Swingle and Parkhill are co-CEOs of The Recovery Project, a facility that provides aggressive physical and occupational therapy for people with traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, and other neurological disorders. Many of its patients are quadriplegics or amputees, or have conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, cancer or muscular dystrophy. The company was founded in October 2003 and now has 36 employees at its clinics in Macomb Township and Livonia.
“When we first started, I was just this little PT (physical therapist) with all these crazy ideas, but Charlie was able to figure out how to turn that into a viable business,” Swingle recalled. “He’s a brilliant businessman, so he handles 100 percent of the business side of things. What I brought to the table were my experience working with patients and my connections in the medical industry.”
The story of The Recovery Project begins in January 1998, when Parkhill was vacationing in Mexico with his wife. While swimming in the ocean, a strong wave knocked him over, and he landed hard on his head and broke his neck. The injury permanently damaged his spinal cord and left him paralyzed from the neck down.
Parkhill, who worked as a certified public accountant and CEO of a financial consulting firm, decided to make physical rehabilitation his single focus. The only problem was that there was no model or protocol at the time for extended, high-intensity therapy for spinal cord injuries.
Then, along came Polly. During Parkhill’s outpatient treatment at the Detroit Medical Center in Novi, Swingle served as his physical therapist and his guide along the long road to recovery. In Parkhill, she found someone who was willing to put himself in her hands and allow her to push the envelope. For the next three years, Parkhill visited the DMC two hours a day, five days a week, to work with Swingle on innovative physical therapy techniques that she sometimes created on the fly.
“I was giving it my all and wanted to pursue more aggressive therapy,” Parkhill explained. “At that time, we didn’t know what effect high-intensity rehab would have on a spinal cord injury. But I was willing to give it a try if it could improve my quality of life.”
Because Parkhill still had some movement in his legs, Swingle wanted to focus on his lower half. She began treating him on an unweighted body support gait system, as well as putting him on treadmills and in swimming pools. At the time, she said, conventional wisdom in physical therapy stated that PTs did not work on a patient’s legs to treat spinal cord injuries.
But Swingle’s experiments ultimately paid off: Parkhill progressed through a series of walkers and crutches, and in 2005, he took his first three unassisted steps. Then, last year, he was able to walk more than 100 feet on his own.
“This is all a product of evidence-based research,” said Swingle, who gives lectures on the topic at facilities all over the country. “Does this type of treatment fix the spinal cord injury itself? No. But with Charlie, I just thought, ‘Let’s try moving your spine and using it again, and we’ll see if we can reconnect some things.’ He’s a very motivated guy, so he needed someone who would really push him. I’m a firm believer that you have to challenge your body’s systems if you want to make any kind of change.”
Soon, Swingle had the itch to make a change of her own. She wanted to break free from the traditional health care system and start a physical therapy clinic that would give her the freedom to fully develop her cutting-edge methods. When she left the DMC to form what would become The Recovery Project, she did not originally intend to bring Parkhill along for the ride. But their growing friendship, combined with his business and financial expertise, convinced her that he would make an ideal partner.
“It was actually a little bit selfish on my part,” Parkhill admitted. “Polly had already decided that she was leaving the DMC, and I didn’t want to lose my PT. It wasn’t a hard decision for me at all — I didn’t feel apprehensive about jumping into this because I believed in Polly and her vision 100 percent.”
In addition to the high-intensity therapy, Swingle and Parkhill sought to establish a more soothing, comforting environment for patients. Many of their decisions about the tone and atmosphere of The Recovery Project stemmed from Parkhill’s own experiences with rehabilitation.
“A lot of clinics can be dreary, cold and depressing,” he said. “I wanted to have a lot of natural light, bright colors and wide open spaces. I can say with all confidence that our facilities are unlike any other physical therapy clinic you’ve ever experienced.”
While many people who receive treatment from The Recovery Project are seniors, the clinic serves patients of all ages and with conditions of varying severity. It also provides medical massage therapy, aging and wellness programs, orthopedic services and a community fitness program.
“A lot of people with these types of injuries like coming here better than going to a regular gym,” Swingle explained, “because it’s not as intimidating for them, and we have all the equipment they need, and it’s a nice social environment with people who understand what they’re going through. But to get the most out of what we do here, you have to be motivated. Luckily, our patients almost always are.”
One of those patients is Matthew Nicholson, 34, of Clinton Township. Nicholson has been coming to The Recovery Project for the last three or four months for physical therapy. He suffered a spinal tumor when he was 14, but for a while, he was able to walk using a cane and leg braces. However, he faced a major setback when he broke his back three times in the last two years and had to have multiple surgeries to repair the damage.
Nicholson now receives treatment at The Recovery Project three days a week. His ultimate goal is to be able to walk with a cane again.
“I know it’s going to take a long time, but it’s been great here so far,” he said. “Anthony (Gioannini), my PT, really pushes me hard. I didn’t think I would be able to walk as well as I can with these crutches. But just last weekend, I walked into a restaurant for the first time in three years.”
When asked what keeps him motivated to work hard, Nicholson pointed to several friends and family members who have endured debilitating illnesses and disabilities.
“My friend’s mom with MS (multiple sclerosis) had gotten so bad that she could only move one hand when she died last year,” he said. “What was I going to do — complain to her? No matter how bad you’ve got it, someone else always has it worse.”
The next step for Swingle and Parkhill is to find a bigger location for their Macomb Township clinic. They are currently looking for something nearby that’s roughly double the size of the 2,300-square-foot facility, and they hope to move in by the end of the year.
Parkhill also continues to devote his time and energy to the Mary & Charles A. Parkhill Foundation for Spinal Cord Rehabilitation, which he founded in 2005 with his wife and Swingle. The foundation’s mission is to raise funds for injured people who lack the health care benefits or private resources necessary to afford therapy and treatment. To date, the foundation has raised more than $350,000 for patients in need.
“I’m really proud of how many people we’ve been able to help,” Parkhill said. “I know better than anyone all the great things that this type of treatment can do for you, and there’s so much more that I’ve gotten out of it than just the physical part. Since my accident, I’ve never spent a day in the hospital for anything related to my spinal cord injury. Working with Polly has given me the confidence and the ability to run our company and our foundation. So I want everyone who needs help to be able to get the same level of treatment that I received from Polly.”
The Recovery Project’s two clinics are located at 17949 Hall Road in Macomb Township and at 20000 Victor Parkway, Suite 100, in Livonia. For more information, call (855) 877-1944 or visit www.therecoveryproject.net.
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