It always takes an inordinate amount of time to travel even a block along Main Street on Roosevelt Island. Everyone seems to want to chat. But walking that route with Natalie Richardson, the Island’s beloved Visiting Nurse Service physical therapist, can seem to take years.
“Hi, Natalie,” people call out. Some point triumphantly to a leg or arm that is now without its cast. Others ask for advice about a therapeutic exercise. Sometimes she stops clients to congratulate them on how much better they’re doing. Other times, it’s “Don’t lean so far forward on your Rollator!” Or “What are you doing outside without your cane?”
Natalie Richardson has been working on the Island since 2003, ministering to the disabled, the frail elderly, and those recovering from accidents or diseases. Part of her work is consulting monthly with Jack Resnick, the Island’s internist.
“Natalie is incredibly important to me and my patients,” Dr. Resnick says. “Apart from her physical therapy skills – she’s the best therapist I’ve ever worked with – her insights into the people we care for are invaluable. We meet regularly, along with the nurses on our team, to discuss the homebound people in our practice. Natalie always has some crucial insight that helps us formulate our plans.”
The first thing clients tend to notice about Natalie is the imperturbable calm and humor that cloak a steely resolve to see them do the stretching and balancing exercises carefully and correctly. Or do them at all. For one patient, she is a “Zen therapist.” (She does pace up and down hallways waiting for doors to open, but that is her one surrender to impatience. And the wait is often rewarded by warm welcomes that she cherishes.)
Born in New York City to Haitian parents, Natalie grew up on Long Island, and now lives in Queens with her Shih Tzu, Kana. There was perhaps a hint of her future career in her concern at an early age with her home environment. She wanted everything “nice and neat.” “I was very caring about my parents. There was a housekeeper coming about every weekend. And it was my enjoyment to help her clean and then to scold my brothers and sisters if they messed up anything.” She burst into laughter at the recollection.
Doesn’t she visit some very messy households these days? “I do, I do. And I’m always tempted to put things in order.” More laughter. “And I have.”
Her training started as a pre-med student at SUNY Binghamton. “I wanted to be a doctor. As a Haitian, your parents always want you to be either a doctor or a nurse.” She switched to psychology with the idea of becoming a psychologist, but soon found jobs were scarce without a master’s degree. She’s not sure how she got interested in physical therapy. But she had played basketball and run track in school. Why not rehab handsome athletes?
She entered the two-year master’s program in physical therapy at Columbia University, where the training included dissecting cadavers. “We had access to the cadavers any time we could go. I don’t know how this happened, but I used to go to the lab by myself, at night, to look at the cadavers and study the nerves and muscles, with a sandwich nearby. I had to study.”
Natalie changed her mind about one goal after completing the program, when she discovered that she preferred working with the elderly to athletes. Her internships were at an Indian reservation in Arizona, a privately owned physical therapy facility, and the traumatic brain injury division at Jamaica Hospital. After several jobs, she found herself on Roosevelt Island. Her mother and aunt were nurses with the Visiting Nurse Service (VNS), and her aunt, who worked on the Island, suggested Natalie apply for the job of physical therapist, and she was assigned here.
Sense of Humor
What makes a good physical therapist? “Somebody who’s compassionate, of course, who can put themselves in the place of the person they’re caring for. You really need to follow the Golden Rule. I always think of that. And you really need to respect their time, even with the homebound. They can’t sit there all day just waiting for me. I try to give them a time frame and then be there.”
A sense of humor is also helpful. Natalie laughed, a little ruefully. “With some people, you really need to have one. And patience, with a capital P.” Many times, what a patient wants most is simply to talk with someone. Natalie understood that from the start. “VNS allots time for ‘niceties.’ I try never to look rushed. I just sit and ask the person, ‘Well, so, what has happened since I last saw you? How do you feel?’ Of course I have to do therapy, but I try to give them what is needed for the day.”
She is willing to do as much listening as manipulating uneasy limbs. Do worries and confessions tend to pour out? “Yes, a lot.” She is silent for a moment. “Sometimes too much.”
And what makes a good patient? “Someone who understands what therapy is about and what the goal is. Who’s willing to work to achieve that goal. Who doesn’t think I’ll be doing all the work. And someone who’s realistic –who realizes that they may not go back to exactly what they were, but that we’re going to try to get them as close as possible.”
Natalie loves to travel, with trips to such places as Morocco, Spain, France, Turkey, Egypt, and Peru. Then there was a visit to Panama. “I wanted to see the Canal,” she admits. “There was nothing interesting about it, but I went there and enjoyed it. And all over America, of course.” Coming up is a tour of Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Austria. And eventually Africa.
Her dream for the future is to open a spa in New Mexico or Arizona, with aromatherapy, massages, and a small bar with exotic coffees and healthy 200-calorie scones.
And she has hopes for her clients’ futures. Independence is foremost. “It may not be the kind that they would envision, but just to be able to do as much as they can do, for themselves, in a safe fashion.” They should swallow their pride and understand that walkers and canes, for instance, do not make them dependent or look old. With such devices, she says, “You really walk, and walk a little faster. And you get farther.”