Jim was mid-sentence when he stopped, said, “Listen,” and seemed to be rustling the phone for some reason. Then, silence. But only for a moment. Then my ear filled with the soft sound of … was that … snoring?
Jim laughed as he came back on the line.
“My dog is snoring; he is asleep right here next to me and snoring.”
I couldn’t see his face, of course, but I could sense that the smile in his voice reached his eyes.
Jim Klug is a Purple Heart Vietnam combat Army Veteran, and the snoring pup – his PTS service dog, Niko.
“He’s never more than an arm’s stretch away. He’s a lovebug.”
For Jim, having Niko with him everywhere he goes, makes all the difference in his days. That includes when he goes to physical therapy.
Through a series of personal connections, Jim received a referral to Therapeutic Associates South Medford Physical Therapy for low back pain.
The 77-year-old veteran had never had a back injury, despite his career in construction and as a building contractor.
“When I opened the clinic door on day one nearly a year ago, I was greeted by the very best receptionist ever – Shannon,” Jim shared. “She is the spark that ignites all that happens inside.”
Clinic director Jay Ruettgers agrees with Jim when it comes to administrative supervisor Shannon Lee.
“Shannon sets the tone from the get-go in the way she connects with people,” Jay said. “I still consider Medford kind of a small-town atmosphere, and when people come in, we take an interest in their lives and make sure they feel at home.”
For Jim, not only does he feel at home when he shows up for his appointments, he says he feels like family.
As he begins to tell the story of his physical therapy journey, Jim pauses. He seems to want to find just the right words to drive home just what that journey has meant to him.
“Jay and the team – Shannon, Rebecca, Carrie – they are all 100 percent all the time, and every time I walk through the door I am treated like family – and I mean that not figuratively, but literally.”
That feeling of being family, that friendship, Jim adds, is never lost, yet the primary objective – the therapy – is never compromised.
The benefit of a customized treatment plan that included manual therapy paired with movement-based exercises brought Jim relief from his lower back pain quickly. So, when his doctor prescribed physical therapy to address challenges he was having with his Achilles tendon in one leg, Jim knew the team of experts he had come to appreciate and enjoy so much would come through for him.
He did not know, however, just how much impact the treatment would have.
“We started treating Jim’s Achilles with manual techniques including ASTYM (Augmented Soft Tissue Mobilization) and some FDM (fascial distortion model) combined with some exercises,” Jay explained. “During treatment, he started noticing an improvement with his neuropathy.”
As a result of two tours in Vietnam 56 years ago, Jim suffers significant neuropathy in both his feet – resulting in regular numbness as well as occasional burning pain.
“I slopped around in Agent Orange for two full years in Vietnam.” Jim shared, his voice even, his tone matter of fact. “On a hot summer day, my feet are cold from the trillions of gallons of Agent Orange sprayed all over the entire SE Asia.”
Very little research has been done on treating neuropathy, Jay said, and most indicates that exercise – strengthening and stretching – is the only thing that leads to decent improvements. Medical doctors, he continued, rarely refer neuropathy patients to physical therapy since there is little evidence that it works.
While there was no definitive reason why Jim’s neuropathy was impacted by his PT treatment, there was every reason to double down. His therapy team began working on both of his legs during his appointments.
“It’s possible that everything we were doing was just making Jim feel so much better that he was able to be really active again and that, along with complete buy-in on his part, led to this progress on his neuropathy,” Jay reflected.
Regardless of the reason, for Jim – though he knows there’s no cure for the fallout from his years of Agent Orange exposure – the increase in his mobility means everything.
“Today I walked, and ran, probably a mile and a half with Niko!”
The happiness in his voice was undeniable as Jim continued.
“I also worked in the yard and picked up wheelbarrows full of stuff!”
Simple, daily activities, which many likely take for granted, bring Jim so much joy and elation that despite his treatment sometimes being quite uncomfortable, he looks forward to every session.
“They brought my feeling back. The level of mobility I am comfortable with has increased remarkably from when I started,” Jim reflected, a sense of awe and genuine appreciation filling his words. “Every time I leave, I can actually feel my feet, my toes!”
When there’s a loss of feeling in the feet, Jay explained, it means a lack of proprioceptive abilities – essentially the body’s awareness of its place in space, specifically the ability to sense what type of surface you’re on, movement and action. Jim’s treatment, therefore, includes a lot of work with proprioception, gait and balance training.
“That numbness drives people crazy – they don’t know where they’re at or what they’re stepping on, it just really throws them off,” Jay explained empathetically.
With restored confidence in his mobility and balance, Jim’s travel with his wife Steph to Chattanooga, New York, to the National Headquarters of Clear Path for Veterans – where he met and trained with Niko – proved increasingly enjoyable. His excitement around becoming a recipient of one of the most extensively trained service dogs in the nation was mirrored by the staff at the Therapeutic Associates clinic.
“Jim is very special to me, and he knows that,” Shannon shared. “He has always laughed a lot and joked a lot, which can be a cover for someone who is in pain – emotionally or physically. So, when he told me about his journey with Niko, I took a huge interest in that.”
Whenever Jim had a trip planned, he would simply bring his travel itinerary to his physical therapy appointment, and Shannon would schedule his next appointments around it and insist he send them photos.
Once Niko graduated and Jim was able to bring him home, he reached out to Shannon to ask her to talk to Jay and determine if it would be okay for him to bring his new companion to his appointments.
Jay and the rest of the team enthusiastically welcomed Niko.
“Jim’s been through a lot, and I believe honoring our veterans is a huge part of what we should be doing culturally,” Jay said. “That’s why one of the things we did as a clinic when Jim got Niko was to buy two Purple Heart pins to put on either side of his vest.”
When the staff had Niko deliver the package with the pins to Jim, Jay recalled, the veteran was blown away.
“I think he was just really moved that someone would do that, to take the time to consider something like that,” Jay reflected.
Like Jim, Niko quickly became family.
“The first time I walked through the doors with Niko by my side, he was included in everyone’s hearts – they knew … he is a blessing,” Jim shared, the love in his voice palpable.
Niko has been with Jim at every appointment since.
“I give him a spot to lay down, on his blanket, and he never leaves his place. He will watch me out there on the gym floor high stepping and doing all my exercises.” I can tell, as he describes this, that Jim is watching Niko sleep (and snore) beside him. A moment passes before he continues. “He’s a side hustle guy, ya know, he does income taxes on the side – he’s that smart!”
Jim’s humor is heartwarming, his laugh – infectious. I realized then that we had been on the phone for more than an hour – talking about the Vietnam war, friends, love, kids, jobs (I’ll forever remember “24 in, 24 out – that’s 10 fingers, 10 toes, two eyes and two ears”), veteran services (and lack thereof), and woven throughout the call – how much his physical therapy and the team at Therapeutic Associates South Medford has meant to him.
“To say that I am thankful isn’t enough,” he mused. “I have suffered for 55 years from two years of continual exposure to Agent Orange. Only this team – the team at Therapeutic Associates – has cared enough to help me, only they have helped me – they’ve given me relief from the pain and restored feeling to my feet.
“Each one of them is an integral part of what makes them a success – everybody here is batting 100 percent, and I see them surrounding not just me, but each one of their patients, with their expertise and exceptional care.”