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Zelle Crawford gave up a career in engineering for one in physical therapy, and he couldn’t be happier: “I get to engineer the best machine ever made – the human body.”
By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, email@example.com
Forrest Wooley Jr. is making his way around the track. Around and around he walks for 30 minutes.
It’s a steady pace, but he’s not setting any speed records. He is a walking miracle, however.
Wooley is about six weeks out from a heart transplant. Back then, he said, he couldn’t walk at all. After his transplant at IU Health Methodist Hospital, the 66-year-old said inpatient therapy got him back on the road to walking. And now?
“I’m on the highway,” he says with a laugh.
And he’s not slowing down.
Watching Wooley’s progress is Zelle Crawford, physical therapist at the COLTT Center (Center of Life for Thoracic Transplant) at Methodist. Crawford might talk like a drill sergeant at times, but he has a soft spot for Wooley and all of his patients.
“We work hard, but we have fun,” he said. “I try to make it enjoyable and I do make it hard because I want them to get better.”
Crawford and his patients are just getting back into the swing of daily PT sessions since COVID-19 forced the center to close in March. During the closure, Crawford redeployed to his alma mater, Purdue University, to staff a residence hall that temporarily housed team members who tested positive for COVID-19 or were quarantining.
The shutdown gave him a chance to reflect on his work at IU Health and gain a deeper appreciation for his job and everyday life.
Physical therapy was not his first career. He graduated from Purdue with a degree in electrical engineering and worked in the field for about 10 years before pulling up stakes and moving to California in search of something better.
“I thought, there’s got to be more to life than this professionally,” he said.
He started working out at a gym regularly and fell in love with fitness, branching out into fitness training and massage therapy. He returned to Indiana in 2004 and eventually decided to return to school. He earned a degree in physical therapy from the University of Indianapolis and began his second career 11 years ago at Methodist.
But he didn’t leave his engineering background behind.
“I always say that now I get to engineer the best machine ever made – the human body. There’s none that’s more complex or more puzzling, but there’s nothing better than seeing a body get better.”
Wooley is a believer.
“At home I was taking baby steps, but now I’m cruising. Zelle is really good at what he does.”
Most of the patients who come through the COLTT program are either pre- or post-transplant patients – all working to boost their stamina and strength. Sessions typically run five mornings a week for four weeks and include walking the indoor track, riding a stationary bike and working one-on-one with Crawford or another physical therapist.
Everyone who starts the program has some hurdles to get over – physically and mentally, Crawford says.
“You have to figure out how to motivate each person. That’s the hardest thing, but we get it done as a team.”
Fear and lack of confidence are the big psychological barriers. And it’s no surprise, considering what patients have faced.
“Most were severely debilitated, some were even near death,” he explains. “So on top of the physical debility, you have the mental aspect. All of that factors into them thinking, ‘I can’t do this.’ ”
Until he shows them that they can.
“I want to see them get faster, stronger, with better balance, better senses and better reaction time. Whatever needs to be done for a person, that’s what I set out to do,” he said.
And if anybody complains that they can’t do enough, Crawford won’t hear it.
“There are people (in the hospital) 50 yards from here who would kill to have what you have,” he said.
That’s because the people who are in the COLTT facility have a second chance. And with the staff’s help, they are making the most of it.
As tough as he is, Crawford, who is married and the father of a teenager, gets emotional when he talks about his patients. Some keep in touch after graduating from the program, sharing photos with him of trips they’ve taken or mountains they’ve climbed.
“This is part of their life … and they’re getting back to it,” he said, wiping away tears. “It means a lot.”
Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org