Let's get 'Fyzical'
Wearing a bright blue harness attaching him to an apparatus above, Sam moves across the floor slowly and deliberately, placing his feet inside rope boxes on the floor with each measured step.
“Make sure you’re balanced, so you have control the whole time,” says physical therapist Susan Chalela of Daniel Island-based Fyzical Therapy and Balance Center, as she stands by his side. “When you think about what you’re doing, in the right sequence, your muscles start to remember.”
Sam, a resident of the Jack Primus community off Clements Ferry Road, suffered a debilitating spinal cord injury two years ago after a fall - and has been in recovery ever since.
“People said I wouldn’t walk again,” he says, but clearly he has defied the odds.
For this portion of his therapy at Fyzical, Sam is using an overhead safety support system, which straps a patient to an overhead structure with a rolling track. According to Chalela, it’s the only one of its kind in South Carolina.
“If he loses his balance, this holds 650 pounds,” she adds. “It keeps him from falling. But I don’t have to put myself in danger to catch him. This has him. We’re breaking down walking to work on strengthening and balancing…and creating a new neuropathway to the brain for muscle memory.”
As Sam is finishing up his exercises, Chalela gets to work on another patient – Bill, a diabetic who is in for treatment with a non-invasive Class IV near-infrared laser on a two-year-old wound that won’t heal on his foot. This is his third session at Fyzical.
“He heard about my laser,” says Chalela, as she readies the machine for Bill’s treatment. “It increases blood flow to the area, decreases inflammation and promotes healing at the cellular level…We want to get a healthy wound bed. He’s tried everything – so this is the next step.”
There is not a lot of research yet on the treatment’s effectiveness and it is not yet covered by insurance. But for both Chalela and her patients, the results have been encouraging.
“We’ve seen great improvement,” adds Bill. “I’m just hoping I can be done soon.”
Bill promises to text Chalela later that evening, to give her a status report on the day’s treatment.
“He and I are staying in very close connection just to make sure it’s going in the upswing and not the downswing,” she says.
Sam and Bill are among the many patients who seek out Chalela’s skilled care each week at her Daniel Island location at 125 River Landing Drive. Those who visit the practice learn early on that the therapy provided here is unlike what they might find elsewhere. Even the practice name – Fyzical – is a reflection of that. As explained on the franchise’s website, it’s “spelled different, because we are different.”
What sets it apart - first and foremost – is Chalela herself. She truly understands what many of her patients are going through, because she has had her own medical struggles. As a young girl, she often suffered dislocation of her joints.
“I would be outside when I was little, kneeling on the ground with my friends and all of a sudden my knee would dislocate, and I couldn’t get up,” she explains. “If I moved, I was in severe pain, …Then it would pop back in and I would get up and be on my merry way.”
But Chalela found that when she would tell others about the dislocations after they happened, they didn’t listen because she was “fine and running around.” Later, while a student athlete in college in 1992, she dislocated her shoulder and required surgery.
“I had a lot of problems when I was younger, but I just thought maybe everybody had this and nobody is complaining. Maybe it’s me.”
In addition to having poor balance, Chalela also described herself as “accident prone” and “clumsy.”
In an attempt to better understand her medical condition and help others who were experiencing the same issues, Chalela decided to go into physical therapy as a career, earning her degree from the Institute of Physical Therapy in St. Augustine, Florida.
But in 1999, on the Thursday before Memorial Day, she experienced a life-altering event that would turn her world upside down. At age 33, she suffered a stroke.
“We were going to a wedding and we had a big weekend planned,” said Chalela. “When something major changes your life, you don’t forget the date…I was in rehab for two years trying to learn to walk and talk and get my memory back.”
Initially, doctors weren’t sure what caused Chalela’s stroke. They wanted to rule out vascular Ehler’s-Dahlos Syndrome (EDS), which can be deadly, she said. After conducting genetic testing while she was pregnant with her son, they came up with a diagnosis.
“They ruled out vascular, but came up with hypermobility and classic EDS.”
Classic/Hypermobile EDS is defined by the Ehler’s-Dahlos Society as a connective tissue disorder characterized by generalized joint hypermobility and skin hyperextensibility. Although Chalela had her suspicions about EDS, she finally had a way to officially connect the dots. It would give her special and unique insight into her patients’ needs – and renewed determination to find ways to help them.
“Therapy of patients with EDS requires a very careful approach as traditional hands on therapy can be harmful due to weak collagen and other conditions,” she said.
Her laser therapy has proven especially effective in those cases.
“This is a way for them to get some pain relief without doing massage and joint mobilizations or anyone soft-tissue, hands on.”
She also offers treatment using a “Juvent,” which is micro-impact platform that delivers a gentle, low vibration to improve balance, range of motion, lymphatic drainage, circulation, and long term bone and joint health. It also speeds recovery.
In addition to EDS, Chalela’s other areas of expertise include balance retraining and fall prevention, orthopedic and neurological rehabilitation, office ergonomics and industrial medicine, medical pilates, osteoporosis, aquatic therapy, sports injuries, and individualized fitness and wellness.
“My specialty is the kinesthesiology or biomechanics,” notes Chalela. “To break down, engineering-wise, what is breaking down, what is setting off the alignment of the system and why is it going haywire? It’s going back and looking at the cause, finding the main problem, and then building it back up.”
With over 20 years’ experience in physical therapy, including a three-season stint with the Philadelphia Eagles, it’s been a full and fruitful career so far for Chalela. But being able to use her own experiences to care for patients with EDS and hypermobility has given her a distinct advantage, she said.
“I am one of the few physical therapists in the southeast dedicated to EDS and hypermobility disorders, which are my main passion and interest, in addition to caring for a wide variety of injuries and conditions.”
For Sam, Bill, and all of the patients undergoing treatment at Fyzical, Chalela’s goal is to get them back to living their best lives, as soon as possible.
“I can do just about anything,” she adds, after saying goodbye to her last patient of the day. “And if I can’t figure it out, I can find somebody who can.”