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‘Why would you want to do anything else?’: After 30 years of helping kids, CDC Physical Therapist Ruth Stern is retiring

HAROLD PIERCE News

Since 1991, Ruth Stern has helped Simi Valley’s children get moving.

As a physical therapist at Adventist Health Simi Valley’s Child Development Center, she has helped innumerable children work through physical limitations, educated parents on their kids’ development and trained generations of new physical therapy graduates, inspiring them to work with children.

This month, just two weeks after her 30th anniversary, Ruth will retire from a career she described as being “magical.”

Ruth came to California from her home state of Massachusetts in 1991 specifically for the opportunity to work at the Child Development Center.

“I’d turned down other jobs, and I wanted this one,” Ruth said, adding that she saw it as a growth opportunity because there were other experienced PTs on staff from whom she could learn. “And we had a physical therapist, occupational therapist and speech language pathologist on staff – and that’s a beautiful setting where we could all work together for the kids.”

When Ruth first joined the fledgling Child Development Center, she was the third physical therapist on staff. At the time, they were working out of a small office in a medical building south of the hospital.

“We’ve grown so much since then,” Ruth reflected. “I was one of the young ones on staff, and now there’s people who could be my kids on staff!”

And many of those young staff members have been trained by Ruth. As a clinical instructor at the Child Development Center, she works directly with new graduates, who up until that point have limited experience working in pediatrics.

“Ruth was the person I shadowed and first exposed me to pediatrics. It was the moment I thought: ‘This is what I want to do’,” said Ashley Surak, who recently graduated from California State University, Northridge, and now works as a full-time physical therapist at the Child Development Center.

She saw the way Ruth not only worked with the kids, but also educated the parents, giving them a deeper understanding of how their child functions and how they can continue helping them develop at home.

“Why would you want to do anything else?” Ashley asked.

When it comes to working with children, physical therapy can be one of the most challenging disciplines. It’s physically demanding. Therapists require kids to work to strengthen their muscles, and when they get tired, they can get grouchy.

“If you hear screaming or crying, it’s a PT session,” CDC Manager Julie Wong said.

But with Ruth, that’s not typically the case, her coworkers said.

She has a finesse of knowing when to push on children to work harder and when to back off and give them a break – a challenge made more difficult by kids’ limited communication skills. She’s always even-keeled, calm and steady, her colleagues said.

“PT is very demanding, and it can push kids over very quickly, but Ruth’s calmness, her knowledge, her easy-goingness with the kids – I haven’t seen kids lose it with Ruth,” said Occupational Therapist Patricia ‘Nic’ Nicholson.

Reflecting on her career, Ruth can’t recall the very first child she helped – there’s been too many. She can, however, recall the first time she couldn’t help a child early in her career. He was severely involved with neurological disorders affecting him physically and cognitively and, as a result, not making progress. Ruth blamed herself and continued putting off his evaluation, hoping she could do something to help him progress.

“I felt like I wasn’t a good PT because he wasn’t making progress,” Ruth said. “I had to figure out internally that it wasn’t my fault – this was a child who was severely involved globally. It was the first time I worked with somebody where it was a negative experience.”

It was a growth experience for Ruth, who has since worked with innumerable children in her career. Sometimes, parents from her first few years will spot her at the store or around town and tell her that she was their favorite physical therapist.

“I love running into those families, and I’ve been going through my files and found so many thank you letters from families I’ve worked with,” Ruth said. “It’s been such a joy for me to read through those and see how the parents were so appreciative.”

At a recent session – one of the last of her career – she worked with a blue-eyed toddler just learning how to walk. Sitting on a mat together, he scooched up from her lap, squatted and then stood up.

“Did you see that? Did you see how good that was!” she told the boy’s father. Even after 30 years, she gets excited to see a child’s development. Moments later, he was taking baby steps to his dad, smiling and giggling as he made his way through a play tunnel and moving around a maze of colorful toys.

Those moments sprinkled throughout her career have been among the most gratifying, Ruth said.

“It’s the moments seeing the joy in a parent’s face when their kids learned a new skill,” Ruth said. “That’s most gratifying.”

Ruth is retiring next week along with her husband, who is also a physical therapist.