With Life-Changing Conditions, He Focuses on Abilities
One in an ongoing series.
As a physical therapist, Steve Sepel’s job is to assist the healing of damaged bodies and provide a welcome source of hope.
Sepel, who’s been at MossRehab for 25 years, treats the usual run of ailments that range from broken bones and frozen joints to stroke and spinal cord injury. Most of his patients complete treatment in a matter of months.
But patients with long-term progressive neurological disease can remain in treatment on and off for years. “My goal in those cases is to help patients maintain their strength and mobility so their illness doesn’t progress,” he says.
Joe Capecci is one of those patients. Capecci has multiple system atrophy, a progressive neurological illness often likened to Parkinson’s disease. Ironically, it’s the disease Sepel’s father died of. Capecci has been seeing Sepel on and off for years as his condition inevitably declines. Sepel has tried to keep him stable so he can remain living at home with the assistance of his wife, Robin.
“Steve cares,” says Robin, a pediatric oncology social worker at St. Christopher’s Hospital. “Steve listens. He keeps looking at what we have, not what we don’t have. We listened to Steve as he adjusted our home program to our needs and Joe’s abilities, not to his disability.”
Sepel agrees that his perspective helps motivate patients. “They come in at one of the lowest points of their life and they only see what they’ve lost,” he says. “I don’t know their losses. I see a person in front of me and see the potential.”
Sepel, who was born and raised in Paris, says his positive outlook is a result both of what he’s learned during his career and his innate optimism – which is especially of note since his mother was a Holocaust survivor and his father grew up in an orphanage.
Sepel cites family vacations he took as a child as an example of his ability to make the best of circumstances. It highlights the sunny optimism he brings to his career.
His family had limited financial means, he remembers, so he, his brother, mother and grandmother stayed in a one-room cottage with two beds and a hotplate to cook their meals. “But we went on vacation!” he says. “We had almost nothing and my brother and I learned quickly to be content with very little, not longing for what we didn’t have.”
Learning to Let Go of ‘Normal’
Obviously that’s a far cry from accepting a disability, and of course Sepel doesn’t tell patients to be happy with what they have. He works with them to restore them to maximal functionality, but sometimes has to help them reorient their outlook if a return to “normal” isn’t achievable.
“Patients with spinal cord injury can be unhappy because they’re attached to who they used to be,” he says. “Once they let go of that, they can find appeasement and contentment.”
Sepel received physical therapy for scoliosis as a child growing up in France, and the combination of science, human interaction and physicality convinced him to pursue it as a profession.
“We all have different strengths and weaknesses, and one of my strengths is to look at someone moving and understand the mechanics of it,” Sepel says. “I can see where the restriction is or the lack of coordination – I can stretch a particular muscle and make a shoulder move better. It’s almost like a puzzle.” That’s the mental part of it.
Sepel says he’s very athletic and also enjoys the physical part of therapy. “I love using my body to help the patients move. It’s almost like dancing.”
His fondness for mental and physical pursuits is also reflected in his private life: he goes rock-climbing and jogging, and also meditates regularly.
Recently, his patient, Joe Capecci, and wife Robin celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary and were among the couples who renewed their vows virtually on the Today Show, officiated by anchor Hoda Kotb. Joe’s determination and Robin’s loving devotion got them there – and Sepel helped them along the way.
“There are days that are hard,” Robin says. “Physical therapy gives us hope. Steve gives us hope.”