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PNRC – Therapy that Works

Posted on September 13, 2018
Pictured from left: Leslie Irwin, vice president and administrator; Mary Dillon, MD, medical director; Jennifer Steely, director of clinical services.

Fresh out of physical therapy school in 1978, Leslie Irwin decided to apply for a job in Knoxville. Her interview included a tour of a brand new rehabilitation facility being built within the walls of Fort Sanders hospital.

“The facility was very imposing and gorgeous,” Irwin remembers. “I knew I was going to be able to be a part of something that was going to be great.”

Now administrator of Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center, Irwin looks back 40 years to the beginning of what became one of the most comprehensive rehab facilities in the region, recognized nationally for excellence in clinical outcomes and the highest levels of patient satisfaction.

PNRC was primarily developed to give local stroke patients a place to recover during a time when they were being transferred to other states for rehabilitation. No one knew then that patients would eventually come to the center from other areas of the state, across the nation and around the world.

Since opening 40 years ago, PNRC has added:

But Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center also stands strong in 2018 because some things never change.

The best interests of the patient and the patient’s family still come first. And the center relies on the continued commitment of therapists, nurses, and medical staff, Fort Sanders and Covenant Health leaders, the Fort Sanders Foundation, donors and valued corporate partners.

Jennifer Steely, director of clinical services, joined PNRC in 1995. Steely says many of the center’s employees have been on staff for 20 years or more.

“It may be uncommon in the general work force of the world, but it’s not uncommon here,” Steely says.

PNRC offers a hospital level of care. “The patients we have this afternoon were in an acute care hospital this morning,” Irwin says.

The physicians are board-certified physical medicine and rehabilitation specialists. They lead the rest of the team that helps patients become more independent, whether that means tasks as simple as being able to brush their own teeth or as complicated driving a car.

Mary Dillon, MD, has been medical director of PNRC since 2003. She and other physician specialists (doctors who specialize in rehabilitation are known as physiatrists) provide medical care for patients, and she refers to the rehabilitation physicians and staff as a team of people who have “a calling” for what they do.

Dr. Dillon is proud of the many awards the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center has received over the years. “As a staff, our goal is to provide the best care and to constantly look for ways to improve the patient’s experience—the kind of care we would want for our own families and loved ones.”

At Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center, the goal is to restore patients’ quality of life, sometimes after the patients themselves weren’t certain they could even survive. Irwin says it was exciting to treat the very first patients in 1978, but being at PNRC in 2018 is even better.

“We’ve been here now for 40 years. The center is vibrant and we take such great pride in the accomplishments of the staff, which ultimately lead to the accomplishments of the patients and their families,” Irwin says. “It’s the result of commitment and the unwavering, unrelenting focus on patient care. The patients are always going to come first.”

To learn more about Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center, its programs and its history, visit