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‘Fuselage’ rehab helps get flight attendant flying again

Southwest Airlines flight attendant Kate Odorizzi demonstrates the type of therapy she received for a work-related injury. (Dan Pelle)
Southwest Airlines flight attendant Kate Odorizzi demonstrates the type of therapy she received for a work-related injury. (Dan Pelle)

Modified airplane body at St. Luke’s simulates occupational therapy

In 2012, a partnership between Southwest Airlines and St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute resulted in a new addition at St. Luke’s – a portion of a retrofitted airplane fuselage.

The fuselage landed at St. Luke’s Community, a 2,200-square-foot therapy area dedicated to helping people recover after an injury or illness. And soon, it helped one of Southwest’s own to return to the job she loved.

Kate Odorizzi has been a Southwest flight attendant for 15 years. Odorizzi moved to Spokane in 2004, although her job is based in Oakland. “Spokane was my favorite overnight,” she said. “I love the four seasons.”

In March 2011, she was working in the aft gallery when her flight encountered severe turbulence. She was violently tossed from side to side in the small area.

“Everything in the galley came out – glassware, drawers – every item became a projectile and I encountered everything.”

She saw her fellow flight attendants being bounced from ceiling to floor as they struggled to stay upright.

After what seemed like an eternity, she and her coworkers were able to secure themselves in their jump seats. “Later the captain told me we experienced four minutes of severe turbulence,” she said.

None of the passengers were injured and the plane suffered no damage, so after landing in San Jose, Odorizzi continued with her tightly packed schedule. “I turned the plane in 20 minutes,” she said, meaning she had the plane tidied up and ready to board as scheduled.

“The next morning I woke up to get ready for work, and I couldn’t move. I was hurting all over,” she said. A visit to the doctor revealed the extent of her injuries. “I’d had trauma to my lumbar and glutes and most of my torso.”

She hoped a couple weeks of physical therapy would enable her to return to work. It turned out she was off the job for two years and four months.

“I was frustrated and sad,” Odorizzi said. “It took a year and a half to discover I’d severely injured the bursae on my hip.”

Following hip surgery, she at last began to see progress in her recovery. Physical and occupational therapy at St. Luke’s became her full-time job. The sight of the fuselage spurred her on. “I could see it when I went to aqua therapy.”

It was cause for celebration when her therapy team finally said she was ready to use the fuselage.

St. Luke’s Community features a restaurant setting, a modified car, SUV and STA bus, a mock grocery store, bank and office, in addition to the fuselage. “The goal is to make sure patients feel comfortable and competent,” said Nicole Stewart, director of marketing and communications for Inland Northwest Health Services.

“It allows patients to practice in a secure environment,” Stewart .

Stewart said Southwest Airlines’ partnership with St. Luke’s was the first of its kind.

In order for Odorizzi to return to her job, she had to be cleared to work with no restrictions. That meant she had to be able to open the 50-pound emergency door and be prepared to help passengers stow bags, among other duties. “I had to retrain my muscles,” she said. “I learned new techniques for bending and lifting.”

Moving quickly is a key component of her job. “I learned I can move fast, but I must move carefully,” she said.

She applied the same work ethic she used at Southwest to her recovery. “From day one my goal was to get back to work.”

Stewart said that determination wowed Odorizzi’s therapy team. “They raved about her positive attitude.”

Finally at the end of June, she took to the skies again and hasn’t slowed down since.

When asked why she was so determined to return to work, Odorizzi said, “I’ll decide when my run is over! This is what makes my blood pump. I was born to be a flight attendant.”

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