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Vital local child therapy program was set to come to an end. Then it found a new home

Kristy Gordon was in denial after learning the outpatient pediatric therapy program at Blake Medical Center — a place her 2-year-old daughter Maddie had come to know and love — would be ending. But the worry of having to find a new therapist for her child disappeared when Manatee Memorial Hospital offered to take over the program a few weeks later.

In a letter to parents, Blake Medical Center president and CEO Randy Currin told families the Pediatric Therapy Program, a staple at the hospital for 22 years, would be permanently closing Dec. 31. The program offered occupational, physical and speech therapy from a team that worked together in the hospital.

“Like any organization, we are continually growing and evolving and over the years we’ve shifted to primarily adult-focused care,” the letter said.

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Maddie Gordon, 2, plays with her favorite toys in her living room, pink bow holding a curled ponytail that bounces as she moves. Maddie’s pediatric therapy program at Blake Medical will soon be moving to Manatee Memorial Hospital. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

The closure would only impact outpatient pediatric services for occupational, physical and speech therapy, the letter said. But that would affect dozens of families, such as Maddie’s.

Blake Medical Center has plans to expand its emergency room, and the space that was previously used by the pediatric therapy program was chosen as the area for the expansion, said Blake Medical Center spokeswoman Stephanie Petta.

With this program being the only pediatric service at the hospital, the decision was made in late October or early November to end the program. Petta said it was a “very emotional decision” for hospital officials.

“The staff is going to be sorely missed. This team is absolutely beloved by everyone at the hospital,” Petta said.

‘We were not prepared for this’

The letter from the hospital included a list of therapy providers in the area, but Gordon worried about Maddie and other children in the program.

“We were not prepared for this,” Gordon said.

Maddie Gordon has been receiving therapy at Blake Medical Center for most of her two years of life. Born with a heart condition that required open-heart surgery at 2 months old, she started physical therapy as soon as she recovered from the procedure.

Maddie was also diagnosed with Down syndrome. She attends three therapy sessions a week.

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Maddie Gordon, 2, plays with her favorite toys in her living room, pink bow holding a curled ponytail that bounces as she moves. Maddie’s pediatric therapy program at Blake Medical will soon be moving to Manatee Memorial Hospital. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

Upon hearing the therapy program at Blake would be ending, Gordon, like many other parents, worried she would have had to seek other therapists.

Ema Offner’s parents shared the same concern and shock over news of the sudden closure. His wife, Stuart Offner said, cried when she found out.

“They’re almost family, you’re there so often. They become part of your life,” Offner said.

Ema, who is 7 years old, was diagnosed in 2014 with Rett syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder. She is non-verbal and does not have functional use of her hands, and she uses a feeding tube for most of her nutrition. Though a little unsteady, she can walk without assistance and uses a tablet-type device, controlled by her eyes, to communicate.

She attended physical, occupational and speech therapy twice a week at Blake Medical Center for more than six years. Those visits and therapists were a big part of her routine, said Offner, an infectious diseases doctor in Bradenton. Offner also works for the Manatee Memorial Health System and sits on the medical executive committee.

“The progress Ema has made in time, just working with (her therapist) was leaps and bounds,” Offner said.

The therapists develop strong relationships with the children they’ve worked with, sometimes for years.

“If you don’t have that love and trust, children can’t learn,” Gordon said.

Staff at Blake were also concerned about the children they served when they learned the program would close, said Liz Brown, supervisor of pediatric therapy.

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Maddie Gordon, 2, plays with her favorite toys as mom, Kristin, plays too. Maddie’s pediatric therapy program at Blake Medical will soon be moving to Manatee Memorial Hospital. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

“We grow up with these children,” Brown said.

The closure meant the staff would lose jobs at Blake and there was potential children could have been without therapy for extended periods of time.

Brown said several people reached out to Smith and others at Manatee Memorial to say the program had been in the community for a long period and needed to find new home.

Finding a new home

When staff at Manatee Memorial Hospital learned the outpatient pediatric therapy program would be ending at Blake Medical Center, they wondered if their hospital could take on the program.

In mid-November, hospital staff started investigating what it would entail. About four weeks later, Manatee Memorial administrative and executive staff maneuvered the transfer of the pediatric occupational, speech and physical therapy program, said Candace Smith, chief nursing officer at Manatee Memorial Hospital.

The move was announced in a letter Manatee Memorial Hospital staff sent to guardians and caregivers of those enrolled in the Blake program on Dec. 18.

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Maddie Gordon, 2, plays with her favorite toys in her living room, pink bow holding a curled ponytail that bounces as she moves. Maddie’s pediatric therapy program at Blake Medical will soon be moving to Manatee Memorial Hospital. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

Smith said the addition of the pediatric program will bring a “positive momentum” and different landscape to the hospital that saw more than 17,000 pediatric patients in 2018.

Kevin DiLallo, CEO of Manatee Memorial Hospital, said they are happy the program can continue in the community and are giving it their full effort.

For the families of the approximately 80 child patients in the Blake Medical Center pediatric occupational, physical and speech therapy program, it’s a chance to continue the therapy they need.

“I was ecstatic. Just to have the hospital recognize the need for it and to be able to reach out and say, ‘Come over here, let’s build a community,’ I don’t have the words for it. It’s something that I’m extremely grateful for that it’s happened in such a short amount of time,” Offner said.

Staffing Manatee Memorial’s new program

Those who have staffed the program at Blake for years also got good news when Manatee Memorial took over.

Manatee Memorial Hospital offered positions to the approximately dozen therapy program employees at Blake. It gave them a chance to continue the service they’ve been providing to the community, some for more than 20 years.

“We probably could have had balloons coming out of our heads,” said Liz Brown, who has been — and will continue to be — the leader of the pediatric therapy program.

Brown, a speech language pathologist, has worked at Blake since she graduated from Florida State University 26 years ago. For the last 12 years, she was the supervisor of pediatric therapy.

They are expected to being the on-boarding process at MMH on Jan. 7 and hope to start therapy sessions about a week later. Hospital officials wanted as little time between program operations as possible. Brown said it’s all happening at lightning speed.

The staff moving from Blake Medical Center to MMH will not only bring their experience with them, but also much of the equipment and games used in their former program.

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Maddie Gordon, 2, plays with her favorite toys in her living room, pink bow holding a curled ponytail that bounces as she moves. Maddie’s pediatric therapy program at Blake Medical will soon be moving to Manatee Memorial Hospital. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

“There’s been just such a sigh of relief when we found out we’d be able to go,” Brown said.

She added staff members are excited about the move and are glad to know they can continue working with their patients.

The staff has become like second families to the children they work with and their families.

“You can tell (Maddie) loves them as much as they love her,” Gordon said.

With two children in therapy at Blake Medical Center several times a week, Andrea Picard was also glad to hear the staff would stay together in the move.

“For them to stay together is huge, it’s a lifesaver,” Picard said. “They do so well with kids because they’re working together. If they weren’t, the kids wouldn’t get same benefits.”

Her 2-year-old daughter Scarlett has a neurological disorder and receives more than seven hours of therapy a week. She’s non-verbal and needs help eating but has learned how to crawl thanks to her therapists. She is still learning to walk.

“If I didn’t have them, I don’t know what shape she would be in,” Picard said.

Her son Easton, 5, also attends speech therapy twice a week.

Though it’s a further drive for the numerous appointments between her two children, Picard plans to continue taking her children to see their therapists at MMH.

“The thing that’s been most heartwarming is both facilities working in conjunction with each other,” Brown said.

Brown will continue her leadership at MMH, where she will be director of the outpatient pediatric therapy program. She added that both hospitals have the future and growth of the program in mind.

Making the move

Petta, Blake Medical Center’s spokeswoman, said the program and its staff will be missed, but the move is “for the best.”

“This was the hospital’s only pediatric program. We’re sad to see it go, but it’s going to a better home,” Petta said.

Blake Medical Center plans to break ground on the new ER that will take the physical space of the pediatric therapy program in the new year. The estimated 18-month project is expected to double the size of the current ER.

Patients’ families will close out their care at Blake and become new patients at Manatee Memorial Hospital before they can begin receiving care. MMH staff hopes to be operational with regular appointments by Jan. 14. Initial evaluation appointments are expected to begin Jan. 21, according to the letter.

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Maddie Gordon, 2, plays with her favorite toys as mom, Kristin, plays too. Maddie’s pediatric therapy program at Blake Medical will soon be moving to Manatee Memorial Hospital. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

The staff is also working to close out the patient files at Blake and open new ones at MMH in the coming days.

Brown said they will first transition current patients and hope to take on new patients closer to February.

To make space for the new pediatric therapy program, Manatee Memorial had to move its adult outpatient occupational therapy program.

Timing played a role in Manatee Memorial Hospital’s ability to take on the program. The hospital recently opened a new 33,000-square-foot emergency room, leaving the old emergency department empty. The space that once made up the old emergency room’s waiting area is now the home of the adult outpatient therapy program.

The pediatric program could then move into the space previously occupied by the adults.

Smith said the leaders of the MMH pediatric and adult programs get along well, and the current staff is excited to bring on the pediatric therapists. She expects a smooth transition.

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