Photos by Alicia Cory from Shotcha Photography
The wind and snow howled outside my window as I dialed Denise’s phone number. Normally, I’d meet with someone in person, but I was recovering from hip surgery and Denise was in late recovery from a broken back. But, she and I share the sentiment that despite bad weather, broken bones, and defective joints, a person keeps going. You just have to get creative.
“Hello, Denise! It’s Sarah,” I greeted her cheerfully.
“Hello!” Denise replied.
I’ve known Denise since 2004 when I first moved to Rochester. As a woman of color with a career as a physical therapist at a prestigious medical institution in a predominantly white community, Denise has been an inspiration to me. She is calm, collected, and intentional and I’ve always felt right at home talking with her.
How do you spell that?
“So, Denise, I’d love to hear about your family and where you are from originally,” I asked after we’d exchanged our pleasantries.
“I came from Chester, Pennsylvania. That's where I grew up. My family is pretty simple. My father was Robert T. and my mother is Girlina.”
“Wait. What is...what’s her first name?” I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly.
“That’s a name I’ve never heard before!”
“I figured they might have heard something in the Russian name Galina, which is a popular name there, but it came out Girlena. But, grandmother’s name was Girlena, so she was named after her mother.”
Denise grew up in a blended family, so even though there were five children total between her father and mother, Denise was raised with two other sisters and she was the middle of those three sisters.
“I am definitely the middle child. I have that kind of demeanor.”
“What’s distinctive about Chester, PA? Is it known for anything?” I asked.
“Yes, in my day, there were a lot of major factories. There was a steel factory that my dad worked at early on and there was ‘Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock’ so lots of people were employed there to help build ships. We even got to go on a tour of a couple of them with my uncle because he worked there. That was kind of an exciting thing.”
“What did your parents do?”
“My father was a policeman and my mother stayed home with the children early on. Then, she had a job as a housekeeper and eventually worked at a state mental institution for many years as an occupational therapy aid. Because of her I learned a lot of the crafts that I now enjoy.”
And, Denise loves to do handicrafts. She can be found making anything from afghans to lanyards. “I could just be making things day in and day out,” she said.
“When you think of your childhood, what’s one thing that comes to mind?” I asked.
“Well, when I was 9-years-old, I got strep throat and ended up with rheumatic fever. Back then, they kept you in the hospital for a long time. I was in there for 15 months.”
“15 months in the hospital?!?” I asked in astonishment.
“Yes,” came Denise’s calm response.
Rheumatic fever can damage the heart muscle, the heart valves, and cause heart murmurs. As an adult, Denise would have both the aortic and mitral valves replaced. Just recently, Denise had some significant issues with her heart rhythm, which required hospitalization, and various treatments to get it back in order.
“Wow! So, what did you do for 15 months? How did that affect your schoolwork? What sort of affect did that have on you overall?” I had so many questions.
Denise seemed amused by my amazement. “Well,” she said, “along with recovery and learning how to exercise and get back into things, we also had school. Initially, I was taught at the bedside and then went to an all-ages classroom in the hospital. Some of the things I learned there were beyond what I would have learned in regular school.
“And, because I came from a black neighborhood, totally black, I really hadn't had any contact with whites that much except for when we went shopping. But, in Children’s Heart Hospital of Philadelphia there were blacks and whites, so I got to be comfortable with both races.”
“Did you experience any push back or discrimination during that time?” I feared the answer, but was gratefully relieved.
“No. Nope. Some of my best friends were white. We all, I think, got together because we were there for the common purpose of getting better.”
Some of the children hospitalized with Denise were very, very ill and, unfortunately, passed away. But, it wasn’t the first time Denise had experienced the pain of loss.
“My uncle, Godfrey, was my mother's brother; he drowned while swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. He got caught in one of those riptides and didn't make it in. And, then his son, who was maybe about seven or eight at the time, ran out in front of a car and ended up passing away.”
“That seems like a lot for a child to have to handle,” I said matter-of-factly.
“Yeah, it was,” she said thoughtfully, ”but it's something that I managed to deal with pretty well. I think God's hand was on me all along, because there are some things that I could deal with that my siblings, or friends, couldn't, but I could.”
Denise was 9-years-old when she went into the hospital and 11-years-old when she got out. She ended up being a pretty smart kid and skipped ahead a grade and returned to school as a sixth grader.
Muscles, Tendons, Bones, and Ligaments: How to use
“So, Denise, when did you become interested in physical therapy?” I asked.
“When I was in about the 9th grade, a woman would come over to help my grandma with exercises. Both of them lived within a block of each other. So, I would go help them with their exercises, one after the other, and it got me interested in the field at an early age. I was probably 14-years-old when I said I was going to be a physical therapist Nobody else knew what that was.
“They had a physical therapy department at the state hospital where my mother worked and I got a job there through 10th, 11th, and 12th grade. That really increased my interest in it. I learned a lot of things working with patients, working with modalities, and working with the therapists, as well.”
“What sort of feeling did working with people create for you or were you more interested in the science aspect of it?”
“I think it was a combination of the two; of reacting with people and knowing they had a need that I could meet. It made me feel good to be able to help people.”
Another passion for Denise is music. She sang in her church youth choir and played cello and eventually oboe.
“We had the best chorus. Mrs. Barnes was our choral teacher and she taught us so much. We actually sang a lot of things that people don't sing in junior high like the “Hallelujah Chorus.”
“Was your high school integrated?” I asked.
“No. Grade school and junior high were, for the most part, segregated, but it was de facto segregation. It was not until high school that we had a totally integrated system.”
“Where did you go to college?”
“I went to college in Athens, Ohio at Ohio University.”
Her major was pre-physical therapy and she ended up earning a degree in zoology. After graduating, she applied to physical therapy schools at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh, and Mayo Clinic.
“Mayo Clinic’s program was tuition free and it came with a stipend, so that was appealing,” she commented.
Could you imagine? Free tuition for a physical therapy program? Yes, please!
“Is that how you ended up in Rochester?” I asked.
Denise Visits Youngstown
“If you could relive one memory from those four years at Ohio University, what would it be?” I asked inquisitively.
“What comes to mind is when I met my best friend, Judy. She’s a crazy white gal, who, uh would see me in line at dinner or in the cafeteria and say ‘hi.’ Every now and then I'd say ‘hi’ back. We got to be really good friends, and she essentially taught me how to hug,” she said with a laugh. “I wouldn't hug people. That was not a part of my growing up.
“I spent a couple of times going up to her family's home in Youngstown, OH. We would hop on the bus and one time Judy had rescued a puppy and we took it on the bus with us; we weren't supposed to, of course. We got to her folks and there we were at their doorstep – a new puppy and me.” Denise laughed at the thought. I laughed too.
“What did they think of you?” I said smiling.
“Oh, they thought greatly, I suppose. They were really nice. I knew them through the years.”
Her friend, Judy, only spent two years at Ohio University, and then finished her degree in the Youngstown area.
“I thought that she wouldn't come back to see me, because there have been people in my life, of course, who hadn't returned for some reason or other. But, she did come back and visit; that made me feel especially loved.”
“Is Judy still part of your life?”
“Yes she is,” Denise said with apparent joy.
Rochester, MN. 1970’s.
“So, in what year did you come here to Rochester?
“1970. Rochester was an entirely different place in the 1970s.”
“Tell me, what were some of your feelings or thoughts about living in Rochester”
“Well, I was the only black student, but the people that were in my classes were from all over the United States and I think that, again, being God-led, we learned from each other. We learned that there weren’t that many differences between us. We had more in common than we had different. We just all got together.
“There were times when I would be out, either alone or with others, when things would happen. I remember a situation in a clothing store in town, at the time, called Massey’s. This lady who worked there followed me around the store because I think she thought that I was going to do something. Now, if she knew how honest I was having grown up under a policeman, she wouldn’t have done so, but she did. I could tell that she was uncomfortable with me being there.”
“Oh, my. And, it’s a story too often repeated.”
“There were times when things like that happened, but for the most part, Rochester was good to me...has been good to me.
“It wasn't until I got into the clinics where I ended up dealing with any type of prejudice because the patients were from all over.
“I remember calling in one gentleman from the lobby and when he saw me he said that he needed to go someplace. I told him he could come back another time when it was more convenient,” she laughed as if to brush it off, “but I knew what he was doing.”
“But, you persevered.”
“Yes, I did.”
Shortly after Denise began working as a physical therapist, she also began teaching as part of Mayo Clinic’s physical therapy program.
“I guess I was a pretty good instructor,” she said shyly. “I really loved teaching people and I learned so much in the process; that it just a lovely thing.”
Not long after arriving in Rochester, and at the prompting of one of her supervisors, Denise auditioned for and got a part in Rochester Civic Music’s production of The Sound of Music. Through that experience she connected with people who became fast friends.
The directors of the play invited Denise to join their choir at Rochester Covenant Church where Denise has been an active member ever since.
“The people I got to know at church, some of the people from choir, took me on trips up north. They taught me how to cross-country ski, and then I...I just...I'm kind of overwhelmed with the thought of that whole thing, now.” I could hear the tears in her voice. “On one of the trips I went on, I was really seeking the Lord and I went out in the morning to watch the sunrise and that's when I got down on my knees and I asked the Lord to come into my heart. If he hadn’t been there before he was there now. That’s how I really got on my walk of faith. That was February 3, 1974.”
“Cancer. Did you did you want to talk about cancer?”
“Sure. Those are the years I remember the most, probably.”
In 2013, Denise realized she was tired. Not just tired; exhausted. A little bump appeared on her leg and it kept growing. Eventually, it was biopsied and the spot wouldn’t heal. Doctors performed a thorough workup and discovered Denise had stage 1 non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“It just took all the energy out of me.”
And, remember she had had her two heart valves replaced by that time. Oh, and she had suffered a bowel blockage in 2009 which required surgery to remove. So, by the time she was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 she was pretty beat up. For the non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, she underwent chemotherapy for nearly two years.
“It just knocked me on my butt. I never really regained my energy levels, even though I went to the Y and was working out doing everything that I could.”
“You still have myopathy in your legs, correct?”
“Yes. Both legs. That's the hard part. Again, I just think that God was with me.
It’s been important to keep a positive attitude because the wrong spirit will just drag me down.”
Truth, Kindness, and Faith
Cancer led Denise to a crossroads. Should she retire or try to continue working? She chose retirement. But, you can take the girl out of the physical therapist’s office, but you can’t take the physical therapist out of the girl. These days you can often find Denise working out at the Y and helping others to find the best way to move and exercise.
I asked Denise why a woman of color would want to stay in a community that, especially in 1970, was predominantly white. As much as we would like to think otherwise, Rochester has a history of segregation and I can only assume the echoes of that were felt well into the 1970’s.
“Oh, they were,” Denise agreed.
The question of why Denise decided to stay in Rochester after finishing PT school was a question she’d heard before.
“I remember one particular woman asking me that question. We were at Friday night Bible study playing some sort of game where we each drew a card with a question on it and asked someone else that question.”
Always perceptive, Denise knew the woman who had asked the question held beliefs about people of color that should be confronted.
“My answer to her was to let people know that not all blacks are the same,” Denise paused. “It was a jaw-dropping experience for her to hear that. That's one of those situations I still remember.”
“And your response changed her perception?”
Even small moments hold great power.
“You made the world a better place in that conversation,” I said with a bit of awe.
“I try,” she said humbly.
“I think that’s a pretty big deal.”
And, it is.
What I’ve learned about Denise is not only does she know how to heal the body through the proper movement of muscles, tendons, bones, and ligaments, but she has this wisdom in tending to deeper, unseen wounds through the proper movement of truth, kindness, and faith.
When confronted with a lengthy illness & hospitalization, she chose to make unlikely friends.
When faced with the pain of loss, she took one step forward and then another.
When racial prejudice drummed its fingers on the table, she grabbed it by its hand and silenced the noise.
When her health seemed to make her stop, she got creative, leaning into something different.
And, through it all, she goes about singing praise.
Sometimes, it’s just all about proper movement.