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Physical therapy moves on up

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After years working in subterranean levels, the physical therapy department moved into the light.

And lots of it.

Physical therapists made the recent move to Essentia Health St. Joseph’s-Baxter Clinic. It’s the first time, they’ve had space that wasn’t reclaimed for them from some another use. Their offices previously traveled from the sublevel at the hospital to the sublevel at Northern Orthopedics in south Brainerd.

Now expanded space, on the clinic’s second floor, provides offices and a small open area with exercise equipment. Models of a flexible skeletal knee and shoulder with sit on a nearby table, giving patients an X-ray view of what’s happening beneath their skin. Colorful weights and resistance bands liven the space. But Michael Steichen, doctor of physical therapy, was quick to say the emphasis is on the healing hands of a cohesive physical therapy team working with a passion for health.

Mike Gotti, who has a master of physical therapy, works along with Steichen and Wade Wacker, physical therapist assistant.

The high energy trio had remarkably similar paths to their careers.

Gotti got into the physical therapy field through sports motorcycle racing. He saw injured friends benefiting from therapy.

“It was amazing to see them come back from the injuries they suffered,” Gotti said.

Steichen’s younger brother suffered a head injury in a motorcycle crash.

“A major trauma changes everyone’s lives,” Steichen said. He noted the return of being a caregiver and making a change in someone’s life, even watching them walk again. Steichen has also been active in life-long learning, going back to get the doctor of physical therapy degree.

Wacker was in a water skiing accident and was a patient at St. Joseph’s hospital in 1990. He credited his mother with getting him into physical therapy. Wacker said he couldn’t believe people had that much fun going to work. Now he has the same experience, waking up and being enthusiastic about going to work each day. He said highlights are in meeting new people and collaborating with other health care professionals.

All three men at some point were educated in Duluth and enjoy active lives with a focus on wellness. It’s that passion for pain-free physical activity they want to share and provide for others, Gotti said.

With the move to the clinic, walk-in patients also have access to evaluations with the physical therapy staff. The group works with any mobility issue head to toe, from people recovering from falls to those working on post surgical rehabilitation. The physical therapists work in collaboration with physicians, getting patients on referral. They work with inpatient treatments and outpatients. Sprains, pains and automobiles, they called it. They also provide balance and condition assessments for aging residents helping to determine if it’s safe for them to walk. And, they said, it’s never too late to work on strengthening, which may make a huge difference in allowing people to stay in their own homes longer as they get older.

Moving out of the basement, the physical therapists said, puts them on the main loop. Their treatment space is between pediatrics and the women’s specialty clinic.

The department didn’t have an exercise room at the Brainerd clinic. In their new space they have additional, separate treatment rooms.

Wacker works with gait training, strengthening exercise and correct techniques, educating the patient to achieve the desired goals. Explaining the importance of the exercise is critical to ensuring the patient isn’t found a year later wishing they had done the work so they’d be in a better place of movement, Wacker said.

“You have to make it enjoyable,” Gotti said. “You want to get them motivated.”

Showing patients the progress with each step helps motivate their participation, Gotti said.

Wacker said they also work with preventing injuries, perhaps working with people who suffered a stroke or had a traumatic brain injury. About 25 people, including support staff and areas of occupational and speech therapy, work in the overall department with elements at the hospital and the Northern Orthopedics building. Physical therapy is the focus at the Baxter clinic space.

Steichen said constant, everyday integration with other medical professionals, nurses and doctors benefits the physical therapy team and patient centered care.

The Baxter clinic has more than 100 employees. UrgentCare doctors and staff, pediatricians, obstetricians/gynecologists and eight of the 16 family medicine physicians made the move from the Brainerd clinic to Baxter. The Baxter clinic opened Feb. 6. The Brainerd clinic continues to have eight family medicine physicians, internal medicine doctors and 12 other medical specialities. There are pharmacies at both clinics.

The 44,000-square-foot Baxter clinic was designed by Widseth Smith Nolting. Kevin Donnay, WSN vice president, was the project architect for the clinic. Donnay said the spaces were designed for efficient operations and energy efficiency. Pervious pavement, which lets moisture through to the soil below, was used in some areas. Donnay said the construction exceeded stormwater retention requirements. Trees removed at the site were replanted on the land. Others that were cut down had their stumps ground down for use as erosion control berm to protect wetlands and then were dispersed to decay naturally. For energy efficiency, rooms have occupation sensors to activate the lights. The building design, with significant glass for natural light, materials of stone and pre-cast concrete, along with an overhang and metal roof leaves an impression of a prairie design.

RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at 855-5852 or

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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