Happy OT Month! In honor of our 100th anniversary as a profession, we continue our series spotlighting Magee’s “OT OGs”, those occupational therapists who have been at Magee for 15 years or more and have helped to shape our OT department to what it is today!
This week we caught up with Lisa Bitton and Al Vernacchio, two of our seasoned OT outpatient therapists at Magee Riverfront.
Jacquelyn Fox (JF): How long have you been at Magee and what unit did you start on?
Lisa Bitton (LB): I started at Magee 26 years ago. I started on the Spinal Cord Injury unit which was on the 2nd floor back then.
Al Vernacchio (AV): I’ve been an OT for 17 years at Magee as well as being a level 1 and level 2 OT student, so 19 years really. When I started here, I was a floor manager/head waiter at a Center City restaurant, so I worked 5 days and 5 nights. I started on the third floor General Rehab unit under Rose Battiato, and I’m still working for her in outpatient after all these years.
JF: What is one of your favorite patient memories as an OT at Magee?
LB: One of my favorite memories is of a former lymphedema patient of mine. He had significant difficulty walking due to the heaviness and large girth of his legs. He was always accompanied by his wife. Several weeks into his sessions, he asked me if I noticed anything different about him. I knew he was walking better, and his mood was so much more positive. He then let me know that because he lost so much fluid in his leg, he was able to throw away his cane. To celebrate, he booked a cruise to Alaska with his family. I was able to discharge him ahead of schedule. It was so gratifying to see this patient achieve a major goal and return to enjoying the retirement that he was once planning for.
JF: Do you have any fun or favorite memories of working with staff at Magee?
AV: There are so many. I remember when Mark Dewane (PT) and I transferred a whole floor of patients during a “test fire drill” that we thought was real. One time, Liz Watson (PT) tracked dog poop from outside the hospital to the fifth floor gym, and I called maintenance because I freaked out. Working with many great clinicians such as the true OG’s like Dina Mastrogiovanni (OT), Maryann Palermo (OT), Bob Ferri (OT), Paula Bonsall (OT), Sheila Wilson (OT), Michelle Marshina (OT), Deb Kucera (PT), Amy Bratta (PT) and Linda Rizzo (PT) and learning from them. When Susan Connors kept calling a patient named Amos, “Noah” because she forgot his name but knew it was “biblical.” Working with such great doctors: Magee is truly blessed in that sense more than people realize! But I truly enjoy working as an outpatient clinician, and Rose and Carol are a big reason for that. Fun fact: Alex Kobb (PT) and I started the same day.
JF: How have you seen OT change at Magee over the years that you have been here?
LB: When I first started at Magee, most of the OT department was on the 2nd floor. We had one aide and a few mats. A large portion of the therapy involved ceramics and woodworking projects. One-on-one treatment sessions did not exist. Weekend therapy was setup of exercises only, without any documentation. The occupational therapists were also not involved with bathroom equipment or transfers. This is quite a big difference from the one-on-one attention and more functional treatment approach that we are able to provide today.
JF: What is your favorite tried and true piece of adaptive equipment and why?
AV: My adapted tweezers to work on dexterity. Everyone wants to borrow them.
LB: My favorite piece of equipment is not widely known about, even among our OTs: its the slippie gator. It assists with getting those difficult compression stockings on with ease.
JF: What are you excited about for the future of OT, in general and at Magee?
AV: I am excited about the future of outpatient rehabilitation. We have been consistently busy, and last year we had our busiest year in 25 years! I am hoping that we eventually have a bigger outpatient facility, of course in South Philadelphia, with a bigger Wellness Center and the opportunity for more classes like nutrition, meal prep, and yoga.
JF: Is there any advice or recommendation you would tell newer OTs or students starting out in this profession?
LB: My advice to any OT student or new OT is to find a setting with a large therapy department. One that has rotations through varied populations so that there are always new things to learn and experience. This way, you can find what you really enjoy and make it a focus of your OT career. I found my niche in utilizing complementary and alternative treatment techniques within my sessions. I really enjoy integrating these within my chronic pain, lymphedema, and regular outpatient populations. These techniques can make a huge difference in someone’s life and it is so gratifying to see my patients improve their function, sense of well-being, and quality of life.
To learn more about Occupational Therapy at Magee, click here.
Top photo: Al Vernacchio