During her clinical rotation, Mira Sedrak DPT ’24 earned a Healthcare Hero Award from Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital.
BY ANDREW FAUGHT
BOBBY PENN WAS DRIVING HOME from a Southern California business trip in May when he fell asleep at the wheel and slammed into the northbound Interstate 5 median in Valencia, Calif. The impact caused his 2011 BMW 135i to roll several times.
The crash broke Penn’s neck, a cervical spinal cord injury (C4-C5) that carries a high risk of complete paralysis or death. Penn, the general manager of a Bay Area firm that installs electric vehicle chargers, doesn’t remember the accident. He does have vivid recollections of waking up at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, paralyzed except for the ability to move his left arm a “tiny bit.”
“It’s scary, I’ll put it that way,” the 50-year-old married father of two says. “The doctor told my wife he didn’t have any clue what my recovery was going to be like, because he was picking bones out of my spinal cord area. There were some moments when I wished I didn’t survive.”
Thanks in part to third-year resident Mira Sedrak DPT ’24, Penn found hope. As he began to regain partial mobility in his hands and feet in the days after the accident, Sedrak — with clinical instructor Kathleen Greulich — became Penn’s biggest cheerleader.
“This was the most exciting thing: Mira came in within a couple days of the accident, and she said, ‘we’re going to get you up and you’re going to walk,’” Penn says. “They would hold me and put their knees against mine, and they’d walk me in the hallway for 10 feet. It was literally an exaggeration of walking, but you’ve got to understand, I had little hope of anything.”
Penn repeated the process daily until he was transferred to another facility after two weeks. Sedrak visited Penn twice a day when he was at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, monitoring his progress and helping him recover to the point that he could use a gait trainer. The trainer is a wheeled device for people who can’t walk independently.
Sedrak also proved to be a soothing presence for Penn.
“He was very anxious, considering his activity level prior to the accident,” she says. “He was an athlete, a weightlifter. Our job was to calm him and, of course, not promise him anything, but to let him know that we were there for him and that we were going to do the best that we could do.”
Because of Sedrak’s commitment to his recovery, Penn made a donation to Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital. In turn, Sedrak was named a “Healthcare Hero” by the facility, a distinction that recognizes industry achievement. Sedrak is the first student feted with the honor.
Sedrak paid tribute to a pair of faculty mentors — Cheryl Resnik, professor of clinical physical therapy, and Didi Matthews, associate professor of clinical physical therapy. In an August letter to the pair, Sedrak highlighted their teaching as critical in her work with Penn.
“One of the biggest lessons you imparted to me was the power of believing in our patients and their potential to recover,” she wrote. “Your faith in us and your dedication to our learning has been a constant source of inspiration for me.
“Your teachings played a big part in this (Healthcare Hero) achievement.”
Sedrak, of Van Nuys, has her own powerful antecedent for pursuing a career in physical therapy. She was 16 when her parents were T-boned by a red-light runner. Both required physical therapy, and Sedrak drove them to their appointments.
“I was there through the rehabilitation process,” she says. “They were lucky enough to come across a pretty good clinic, and that made me fall in love with the realm of physical therapy. I decided to take it on from there.”
These days, Sedrak is weighing her work options. She’s considering acute inpatient rehabilitation, which could involve working with spinal cord injuries. Or she may pursue work with geriatric patients or outpatient orthopedic patients.
Penn, meanwhile, continues to make impressive recovery gains. He recently completed a 5k run, and he’s back to lifting weights. While he hasn’t been able to drive due to PTSD, Penn is optimistic about the future, just five months after the accident.
While recovery from cervical spinal cord injuries is a years-long process, the most dramatic mobility improvements occur in the first year, according to doctors. Penn still is regaining coordination in his hands, and he endures neuropathic pain as nerve pathways slowly regenerate.
Sedrak, meantime, is now doing her clinical rotation at the Ho Rehab Center in Tarzana, Calif., an outpatient orthopedic clinic. She remains in touch with Penn, whose injury she describes as “challenging.” But there was a happy ending to her chapter of Penn’s story: “Bobby left Henry Mayo able to walk.”
Penn, for his part, has developed an appreciation for the role of physical therapists. He reminds those in training to never underestimate the impact that they will have on patients.
“You only fail when you lose hope,” he says. “A physical therapist is going to meet a lot of people who are literally in the worst shape of their lives, going through the worst conditions you can ever imagine. Physical therapists are there to give hope, both mentally and physically, because it’s not a job where you can say, ‘OK, let’s put some muscles on you.’”