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Crain’s Detroit Business Allied Health Winner: Polly Swingle

By: Jay Greene


Polly Swingle wondered nearly 20 years ago if cutting-edge physical therapy conducted on cats with spinal injuries that allowed them use of their hind legs would work on humans. It did.


Working with her patient Charlie Parkhill, a businessman who had injured his spinal cord in a freak swimming accident in 1998, Swingle began to test her ideas in Detroit using high-intensity workouts.


“Charlie was 100 percent successful in his personal and business life. He had such a drive in him,” said Swingle of Parkhill’s determination to walk again.


“I thought, ‘Let’s strap this guy on a treadmill that was located in the orthopedic unit (of Detroit Medical Center’s Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan)—something that was not used for spinal injuries—and see if he can learn to walk,’” said Swingle, a physical therapist who worked at the DMC at the time. “He learned to walk. It worked.”


Thus was born high-intensity therapy—the use of specialized treadmills, stationary bicycles and other equipment to treat patients for two to three hours at a time. Typical physical therapy is for an hour maximum, two to three times a week, she said.


“I didn’t invent it. During that period in the mid-1990s, many people across the country were reading the research and trying the same thing,” Swingle said. “I was the first in Detroit and Michigan to use it.”


After six months of high-intensity therapy, Swingle said, Parkhill was able to use a walker for short distances. As a quadriplegic whose spinal cord injury left him motionless from the neck down, Parkhill uses a wheelchair for longer distances.


“His prognosis was he would be wheel-chair-bound and need assistance for everything,” Swingle said. “He needs some assistance for transfer” from wheelchair to bed or chair.


In 2003, Swingle and Parkhill founded The Recovery Project, a for-profit physical therapy rehabilitation clinic with offices in Livonia and Clinton Township. They employ 40 therapists and support workers.


The clinic specializes in spinal cord and traumatic brain injury and geriatric rehabilitation, but it also treats patients with Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and other neurological disorders and injuries.


In 2005, Parkhill took his first unassisted steps and has walked nearly 100 feet on his own at one time.


“He has a quality of life now that nobody would have ever dreamed of before,” Swingle said. “Spinal cord injury patients like Charlie who exercise regularly also don’t have as many secondary health problems like obesity, diabetes, heart disease or respiratory conditions.”


Geriatric patients who have been injured or lost mobility also have fewer secondary medical conditions, she said.


Swingle said the degree of recovery is based on the seriousness of the injury, the motivation to improve and the quality of their health insurance coverage.


“Health insurance plays a huge part,” she said. “We are blessed to have no-fault insurance in Michigan where people in car accidents can have this treatment.”


For more information about The Recovery Project, call 855.877.1944 or visit


Click here to read the original article on Crain’s Detroit Business.