Ask 5-year-old Ethan Pimentel who his favorite doctor is and he’s sure to shout – Dr. Smith! Ethan, who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, began seeing pediatric physical therapist Dana Smith a year and a half ago when he wasn’t meeting some crucial developmental milestones. Children in Ethan’s age range are generally able to kick a ball, go down a slide, climb up and down stairs one step at a time, and lie on their backs. Ethan was not able to perform any of these physical milestones, that is, until now. “We have noticed many improvements in Ethan in the time he has been seeing Dr. Smith,” says mom Taisha Pimentel. “Physically, Ethan is getting closer to where he should be at for his age; now he can kick a ball, alternate his feet when going up and down the stairs, he enjoys all playground activities that he once feared including swings and slides, he tolerates lying on his back, and he continues to gain strength with every physical therapy session,” adds Pimentel.
Smith began her career at Hackensack University Medical Center (HUMC), a teaching hospital in New Jersey and the New York metropolitan area. There, she gained valuable experience as a bedside physical therapist working with critically ill patients. While at HUMC, Smith decided to transition her energies from working with adults to children after she met a young boy fighting a rare form of leukemia. “He had to be kept in isolation pending a bone marrow transplant,” says Smith. “I spent countless hours with him and his mother during his lengthy hospital stay. I don’t think I will ever forget him – he helped shape my career goals.”
In 2013, Smith opened her private pediatric physical therapy practice, Westchester Physical Therapy (home of Sensory Jim & Friends), in Riverdale. A second location located at 495 Central Park Avenue in Scarsdale opened in May of this year. With more than 22 years of experience, Smith is determined to do the very best for each family that she sees at her practice. “I feel incredibly honored that a parent would entrust me with the care of their child,” she says.
The range of patients Smith treats is wide and includes those recovering from bone fractures or overuse injuries due to sports, children with scoliosis, infants and toddlers who need help meeting physical developmental milestones, and children with autism spectrum disorders. “I work with children that are born with disorders that impact their ability to move, have developmental delays, born prematurely, develop various diagnoses such as torticollis and spectrum disorders, have poor posture or orthopedic impairments such as bone fractures that need rehabilitation,” says Smith.
Smith, who has a certification in Sensory Integration and advanced training, says this specialization makes all the difference in the care she can offer her patients. Sensory information is received via the senses – hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, seeing and the vestibular system located in the inner ear (the vestibular system is amok, say, when you have vertigo).
Children whose sensory systems are not working for them may find themselves in harm’s way or suffer in social settings. Those experiencing difficulties with vestibular processing may appear clumsy, anxious, feel dizzy, have motion sickness, or may have combined visual tracking problems. “With Ethan, I knew right away he was having a problem with his vestibular system,” says Smith. “He disliked when his feet left contact with the ground leading him to have gravitational insecurity and feared lying on his back, both aren’t typical.” For children with sensory issues concerning the vestibular system, Smith says she can work on balance and coordination, eye tracking, postural control as well as strengthening exercises. “We need to diminish their fear,” she says.
In combination with physical therapy, Smith urges families to play a primary role in a child’s development. “We love that we are able to talk to Dr. Smith about Ethan’s sensory challenges and she always provides us with good recommendations and techniques on how to work with Ethan so that we can help him at home,” says Pimentel.
Smith is happy to report that Ethan is doing exceptionally well. And how does Ethan feel about his therapy sessions? “We can’t get him to leave when his hour is up,” says Pimentel with a smile.
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Rachael Sanderson Benz is a Westchester-based freelance writer.
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