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Images (top and below) from a book published to celebrate Sheltering Arms’ 125th anniversary. The book is available at dementimilestonepublishing.com.
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For the first 92 years of its existence, Sheltering Arms did not bill patients for medical care.
"It was the working poor that we were trying to get back to work and get them independent so that they could release the caregiver to go to work," former board member Anne Rutherford Lower says. "The idea was to help [the patients] be productive, both for financial reasons and for their self-esteem."
The physical rehabilitation health care provider was founded as a free general care hospital in 1889 by Rebekah Peterkin, a daughter of the rector of St. James's Episcopal Church. When Rebekah died two years later, her mother, Elizabeth Hanson Peterkin, stepped in as the director until 1910.
At the original hospital on North Old 14th Street, doctors donated medical services such as appendectomies, using equipment from their private practices. Some doctors even volunteered to help paint the building and maintain the grounds. Over the years, the volunteer-run hospital received donations of food, money and supplies from the community. In November 1964, members of the Randolph-Macon College Phi Alpha fraternity donated 26 pints of blood.
But with the advent of Medicare and Medicaid in the mid-20th century, the hospital saw less of a need for free health care. "We wanted to keep the hospital viable," Lower says. Before moving to Richmond, she had worked at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University. After careful consideration of the Richmond metropolitan region's needs, "we picked physical rehabilitation," Lower says.
In January 1981, Sheltering Arms transitioned to a private practice and became the first freestanding physical rehabilitation hospital in Virginia. But the aim of getting patients back to work remained. This year, the hospital celebrates its 125th anniversary. "We're still holding true to that mission," president and CEO James Sok says of the rehabilitation center that treats more than 20,000 patients a year for complications from neurological problems such as spinal cord and brain injuries, orthopedic problems, cardiac episodes and strokes.
Though some things haven't changed, many have. The hospital has gone from relying on old, borrowed equipment to being at the forefront of many medical breakthroughs. "We're an early adopter of a lot of the newer technologies," Sok says, adding that he hopes to improve patients' recovery time through the advanced equipment. The center now operates two freestanding hospitals in Hanover and Midlothian, and 10 outpatient clinics throughout Richmond. It also partners with companies that manufacture rehabilitative products. "In some cases we're a test bed for that technology," Sok adds.
Through the iWALK and iREACH recovery centers in Sheltering Arms hospitals, physical therapists work with high-tech tools to help patients overcome problems with walking from injury and illness.
"They give you the tools to get better," says Jamaal Williams, 37. On Feb. 14, 2007, the former Virginia Union University football player suffered a massive stroke that left him unable to move, walk and speak. For three months, he was treated at the inpatient care center at Sheltering Arms' Memorial Regional Hospital campus. "If I could get something to move, it was good for my confidence," Williams says.
In addition to the walking exercises, Williams used the REO Go — a robotic device that utilizes constant repetition to guide and assist arm movements — and the SaeboFlex, which fits around the hand to allow stroke patients to strengthen their wrists, hands and fingers.
Two months later, Williams walked out of the hospital and hasn't used a wheelchair since. Now he runs a marketing business from his home and occasionally volunteers at the center where he was treated.
In the next 10 years, Sheltering Arms plans to continue to invest in emerging robotic and bionic technologies. "Our goal is to get people back to work," Sok says. "Using rehab, you can help a person who's had a stroke to walk with a walker. But we want to get them beyond that; we want to get them to walk on their own."