When Joan Marie Wallace suffered a massive stroke while on a Jan. 10 business trip to San Diego, doctors gave her a 4% chance of surviving.

But Wallace did survive, a testament to her fierce tenacity and determination, coupled with excellent medical care.

And one of the key contributors to Wallace’s long, arduous journey to recovery has been Ian Lonich, a neurologic physical therapist with Allegheny Health Network.

Lonich, of Cecil Township, has worked with Wallace, director of merchandising for Jazzercise Inc., to improve her balance and mobility since the two met in July, when Wallace, a Pittsburgh native who lives in New York City, was discharged from AHN’s West Penn Hospital, where she had been a patient.

In the realm of physical therapy, neurologic physical therapists are a rare breed: only 1.5% of physical therapists are certified in neuro physical therapy.

In Pennsylvania, there are a total of 152 board certified neurological physical therapists – who specialize in the evaluation and treatment of patients with movement problems because of disease or injury of the nervous system – and Lonich is the only physical therapist within Allegheny Health Network’s Pittsburgh outpatient network with the certification.

Additionally, he is certified in two programs designed for patients with Parkinson’s Disease.

It’s the chance to work with patients like Wallace – feisty, funny and motivated to regain control of her life – that inspires Lonich.

“I want to be a patient advocate. I try to provide my patients with opportunities to improve their quality of life,” said Lonich. “For patients who have had a stroke, I’m trying to improve their function. For patients with more degenerative diseases, I want to offer them something that will change their qualify of life and make it better, and help them enjoy that life better.”

Lonich decided to pursue physical therapy after watching his grandmother, who suffered from an illness he did not disclose, decline because of a lack of quality care from a physical therapist.

“The therapist was never really her advocate. He never really challenged her in an appropriate way, so one of the things I’ve always wanted to do was do a little better for my own patients,” said Lonich.

He has done that for patients like Wallace.

On a recent weekday, he spent an hour helping Wallace work on balance. She has struggled since the stroke – caused by an aneurysm – left her with dizziness and balance issues that leave her unsteady on her feet.

During one of the exercises, Lonich placed numbered discs on the floor and directed her to touch the discs that would add up to a number he called out.

For example, when Lonich said “seven,” Wallace had to tap the discs numbered three and four, two and five, and one and six.

He stayed close to Wallace, hand hovering near her back, while she planted one foot and touched the discs with the other foot.

Wallace, who cannot remember any events from the past 10 years as a result of the stroke, concentrated hard, but also joked with Lonich and talked about subjects ranging from her dog, Murray, to restaurants and her husband Patrick’s New York City apartment, to which she is eager to return.

“He’s been a godsend for her,” said Patrick Wallace, who affectionately calls his wife the “Polish Warrior” and “Wonder Woman,” and has been her constant companion, advocate and cheerleader. “He works her hard, and she looks forward to it. He makes her laugh. He’s warm, he’s funny, he’s very smart. It’s been an incredibly tough year for her and he’s done a great job with her.”

Lonich, a graduate of Charleroi High School, earned his undergraduate degree at California University of Pennsylvania and his physical therapy degree at Chatham University.

His neurologic training enabled Lonich to study how the brain and central nervous system – and disruptions in them – affect movement, and to learn how to maximize function in patients who suffer from diseases that impact those abilities.

Physical therapy has evolved significantly in recent years, he said, and it has improved the outcomes for patients throughout rehabilitation.

Lonich has been a physical therapist for five years, and has worked at AHN for the past three years. He is based at AHN’s Suburban Hospital and travels to several AHN sites.

“I get to see patients a lot, which gives me the opportunity to get to know them. I get to experience their lives with them, you get to see major life events with them, patients getting married, having kids. It’s a really cool thing,” said Lonich.

He has worked with patients ranging in age from teenagers to older than 100.

Wallace, 57, who has suffered setbacks including two massive seizures and falls that resulted in broken bones during her recovery, has inspired Lonich.

“She has made significant progress,” said Lonich. “When someone comes in actively seeking out opportunities to improve their quality of life it’s a huge boost to their potential prognosis. It helps tremendously when someone has a care partner, like Patrick, who is there willing to support them every step of the way, no matter how hard.”

For Wallace, whose recovery has been chronicled in a lovingly heart-felt and humorous blog Patrick has written, working with Lonich has made a difference.

“I trust Ian,” said Wallace. “He pushes me. He challenges me, and I need that.”

To follow Wallace’s journey, visit her blog, written by Patrick, at caringbridge.org/visit/joanmariewallce.

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