November 27, 2023

Generations of orthopedic patients and practitioners hold a special place for Sandy Shelton

She has been “Happy to be here” for more than 40 years, and, as she nears retirement, is hailed as a legend in Orthopaedics.

Sandy Shelton was recognized for her outstanding service by her colleagues with a “Happy to be Here” award which now hangs in the Orthopedic Unit at Vanderbilt University Hospital. It will be awarded annually in her honor. Left to right are Rosemary Lewis, OTR/L, Shelton, Leslie McCabe, OTR/L, and Chris Turner, PTA.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center orthopedic physical therapist Sandy Shelton remembers the day she was reviewing a patient’s discharge instructions after his joint replacement surgery.

Shelton asked his wife and daughter, who were also in the room, if they had any questions for her. That’s when she received affirmation that her career had come full circle.

“The daughter, who was in her 20s, said, ‘You were my physical therapist when I was a little girl. I have cerebral palsy, and you taught me how to walk!’” Shelton recalled. “I told her, ‘Boy, you look great. Let me see you walk.’”

The young woman’s gait was steady and even. Her mother had followed Shelton’s instruction to cover the floor in paper, coat the soles of her daughter’s feet in finger paint and have her practice walking on the paper.

“That way she could tell if she was walking heel to toe with her foot on the ground and not walking on her toes,” Shelton explained. “I told one of the other therapists here about it and said, ‘Man, I was good, wasn’t I?’”

In the 1980s, Sandy Shelton, PT, GTC, and other VUMC physical therapists worked with patients on the second floor of the Round Wing, the space now occupied by the Clinical Research Center. (VUMC News and Communications file photo by Debbie Meredith)

Shelton is retiring from her nearly 43-year career as a VUMC physical therapist, and her co-workers will tell you she’s not just good, she’s great. In recognition of her decades of commitment and service to patients, an annual award has been created in her honor, the Staff Dedication Orthopedic Award.

It’s also known as the “Happy to Be Here” award, which is Shelton’s sincerely joyful response when asked how she’s doing. Hers is the first name on a plaque hanging in Vanderbilt University Hospital’s Orthopedic Unit on the seventh floor of the Critical Care Tower.

“Sandy is a legend”

Ryan Stornes, OTR/L, clinical team leader for Acute Rehabilitation, is Shelton’s supervisor. She helped train him on “all things orthopedics” when he joined VUMC, and he calls her a “legend in the physical therapy world, the orthopedic world and VUMC.”

“She’s the epitome of the saying ‘Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life,’” he added. “This is evident in the outstanding service she provides to every one of her patients. One thing that stands out to me, more than anything, is that all of Sandy’s patients remember her name even years after an encounter with her. This speaks volumes to the impact she makes, as patients meet dozens of people during their time at VUMC.”

“Dr. Brooks taught me everything I needed to know about orthopedics. He would say, ‘Tomorrow I’m doing an amputation, and you need to be here at 6 a.m.’ When I finished observing surgeries, I would do therapy with patients for the rest of the day.”

On Jan. 1, 1981, Shelton began her career at VUMC. She had just graduated from University of Tennessee Center for Health Sciences in Memphis with her bachelor’s degree in physical therapy. Doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degrees, now required for physical therapists to practice, didn’t exist then.

Arthur L. “Art” Brooks, MD, then chair of the Department of Orthopaedics, quickly became her mentor. She began working with pediatric patients, including children with spina bifida, cerebral palsy and orthopedic injuries.

“Dr. Brooks taught me everything I needed to know about orthopedics,” she said. “He would say, ‘Tomorrow I’m doing an amputation, and you need to be here at 6 a.m.’ When I finished observing surgeries, I would do therapy with patients for the rest of the day.”

When Shelton began working with Brooks, if a patient had their knee replaced, they came out of surgery in a long leg cast, and they could not move their leg. They kept the cast on three or four days before it was removed, and they began to do limited exercise. Patients stayed in the hospital at least 10 days until staples were removed from their wounds, and they went home. Now, it’s same-day surgery, and patients are up and walking as soon as possible.

Top-notch educator

Shelton also attended journal clubs to discuss current topics and research in orthopedics alongside the department’s trainees. One day a resident told her she had to stop reading the assigned articles.

“I asked, ‘Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?’” she laughed. “They said, ‘No, we’re coming for the free dinner.’”

Shelton began leading continuing education courses and lectures on orthopedics and joint replacements. She quickly earned a national reputation as a top-notch educator, particularly as an instructor for GREAT (Geriatric Rehabilitation, Education And Training) Seminars. She has authored journal articles and presented to physical therapy conferences and to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. In 2001, she received her Geriatric Training Certification.

“Sandy, being a jokester she is, would tell patients, ‘I know this is going to hurt, so let’s say out loud with each step: ‘Thank you, Dr. Holt, Thank you, Dr. Holt, Thank you, Dr. Holt.’”

Orthopedic surgeon Ginger Holt, MD, attended educational lectures given by Shelton when she was a medical student and resident. She recalled making the notation in patient orders under physical therapy, “Consult Sandy Shelton.” Holt sings her praises, even the unique way Shelton would add levity to patients’ first post-surgery walks.

“Sandy, being a jokester she is, would tell patients, ‘I know this is going to hurt, so let’s say out loud with each step, ‘Thank you, Dr. Holt, Thank you, Dr. Holt, Thank you, Dr. Holt.’”

“Sandy was the Credo before there was a Credo, DAISY before there was a DAISY,” Holt said. “She is, and has always been, about the best in patient care. When we were residents, Sandy would call and advocate for patients and make sure we were doing the right thing. She would ask in great detail about the surgery, whether or not the patient could be weight bearing or push their activity further based on what we did in the operating room.”

Early in her career, Shelton was asked to expand her orthopedic physical therapy practice to include both children and adults. By 1984, she was working exclusively with adult patients.

“VUMC should be proud”

Brooks also retired in 1984, and orthopedic surgeon Michael “Mike” Christie, MD, joined VUMC to build a total joint replacement service. He became Shelton’s mentor in this specialty as advances in protheses and surgical techniques increasingly brought relief to patients with deteriorating joints. Observing joint replacement surgeries made it easier for Shelton to teach patients about how and why they really should do certain post-surgery exercises for the best recovery.

Shelton was a valued member of VUMC’s first committee to develop and implement the use of orthopedic critical pathways, an evidence-based guide for patient care after procedures. These protocols were followed for nearly three decades until they were replaced by the enhanced recovery after surgery (ERAS) program to shorten hospital stays, reduce complications, and reduce opioid use. Until her retirement, Shelton served on a hospitalwide collaborative patient care task force.

“She is a phenomenal teacher, and VUMC should be proud that she gave her whole career to them. My heart is heavy as I think of coming to work without her being there.”

Lana Molnar, RN, has worked alongside Shelton for 33 years and knows she’ll miss Shelton’s cheerful voice and her championing of both the staff and patients.

“She is so knowledgeable in her field and shares her expertise with everyone she meets,” Molnar said. “She is a phenomenal teacher, and VUMC should be proud that she gave her whole career to them. My heart is heavy as I think of coming to work without her being there. I am so fortunate to not only call her my co-worker but also a wonderful friend.”

Physical therapy assistant Lisa Jones, who has worked alongside Shelton since the 1980s, echoes those sentiments.

“She has made a significant difference in many patients’ lives in her more than four decades here, but one stands out,” Jones said. “There was a lady who was in a motor vehicle accident many years ago, and Sandy worked with her to teach her how to move as the patient had both legs amputated below the knees. That patient is now a patient care advocate for amputees.”

Shelton isn’t sure how retirement will suit her, as she’ll miss her colleagues who are like family and caring for patients on the Orthopedic Unit.

She’s looking forward to spending more time with her four sisters and her mother, who was counting down the days until her retirement. She also plans to be active in her church’s mission to serve homeless persons.

And then there’s more sports. Shortly after Shelton was hired, she got season tickets for Vanderbilt men’s basketball. She started out with seats on the second from the top row, and now, 42 years later, she’s cheering on the team from section 2F, row 4, a primo view of the goal. Since the 1980s she hasn’t missed a single Southeastern Conference basketball tournament.

She figures now she’ll have time to attend nearby away games, too.

“Oh, and I’m keeping my PT license,” Shelton said.

Sandy Shelton, right, who is retiring after nearly 43 years as an orthopedic physical therapist, has worked alongside some colleagues, such as Lisa Jones, PTA, for nearly her entire career.