At Key Rehab Associates, these women are not just working. They are having a ball

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 28, 2010

Reneé Davis-Adams had a couple of surprises in her first week of work at Key Rehab Associates in Natchez.

Davis-Adams, a physical therapist, was just getting her feet wet and her routine set when she was invited to lunch with all of her coworkers.

“I had worked in her other therapy offices, and that never happened,” she said. “I thought it must have been a special occasion or something.”

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She found out a couple of days later that office bonding was anything but a special occasion when she was extended an invitation to a monthly movie night at a coworker’s house.

“The camaraderie here is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced in a workplace,” she said.

And that is just how Cathy Roboski and Maria Smilo intended it to be when they opened the doors 11 years ago. Key Rehab co-owners, Roboski, an occupational therapist, and Smilo, a speech therapist, wanted to create an atmosphere that was conducive for patient healing, but also an enjoyable working environment for the therapists and office staff employed there.

“You don’t see therapist stay in the same place for seven or eight years,” Roboski said. “That is just the nature of the job, but we wanted a place where (staying) was normal because people liked where they worked.”

And judging from the conversations and interactions — which are just as likely to be personal as they are professional — the dream is coming true.

“We shop together; we exercise together; we diet together; we cheat on our diets together,” Smilo said. “We’re all friends here. I don’t think you’d make it long here, if you weren’t the type of person to become friends with coworkers.”

Outings outside of the 40-plus hour work week are intentionally scheduled, because the job, Roboski said, can be overwhelming without a stress release.

With a typical day jam packed with at least 60 patients of all different ages, with different needs and at different stages in therapy, an open environment for conversations, laughing and good-hearted joking is necessary.

“We work long days, 10- and 12-hour days,” occupational therapist Katie Goldman said. “You can’t talk just about work and just about patients that entire time.

“We are people, as well as therapists.”

To make sure, they remain people, and not “therapy robots,” monthly movie nights are a must, birthdays are celebrated, shopping trips are planned and lunch dates are scheduled.

This past summer, the entire office attended a multi-day retreat at Lake St. John.

The six-person therapy staff and the three-person office staff don’t simply exchange pleasantries and air space, they are a cheerleading squad when things are going well and a support system when things are going badly.

Billing specialist Linda Cox learned exactly how important the relationships she formed at work were when her personal life took an unexpected turn. Cox leaned on her co-workers for strength while going through her divorce.

“If it hadn’t been for them and coming here every day, I’m not sure what would have gotten me out of bed some days,” Cox said. “They really saved me during that time.”

Office administrator Janet Gay shared a similar experience. Gay’s January birthday wasn’t a time for celebration after the death of her aunt, but her coworkers wanted to make sure Gay got her big day — even if it was a few days later.

“We had a movie night just a couple of weeks later, and after the movie was over I thought we all were just going to go home,” Gay said. “But they had other plans and surprised me with a big birthday cake.

“It was just what I needed to make me smile.”

But it isn’t just in difficult times that the Key Rehab bond kicks in. The staff is just as apt to celebrate — just ask newlyweds Goldman and Davis-Adams.

The weddings were just a couple of months apart and when finishing touches needed completing, the staff came to the rescue.

“We were tying bows and putting together goodie bags between patients and phone calls,” Roboski said. “It was like we were all getting married.”

The bows tied with love by Key Rehab staffers were used in both weddings.

But what exactly makes all the personalities mesh?

Roboski said it comes from a shared desire to care for people.

“We all have a passion for helping people,” she said. “There are people who get into therapy for the money, but everyone here is in it for helping patients.”

From that, a respect is cultivated, physical therapist Cheryl Givens said.

“None of us are territorial,” she said. “We bounce ideas off of each other trying to formulate the best plan for our patients.

“We all have different strengths and different outlooks, so, because we have a trust, we are able to combine those to be better therapists.”

And better friends.