From Hamden to Hawaii: Alumna comes full circle treating professor

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By Janet Waldman, MS '09 July 27, 2021

Professor rides a PT bike with former student teaching him how to use it

Karen (Lang) Woodward ’99 paid rapt attention as her physical therapy professor, Don Kowalsky '77, explained the workings of the human knee to her class more than 20 years ago. She aced that exam and went on to pursue a career in orthopedic physical therapy.

Kowalsky, now retired, had two knee replacement surgeries this past winter, and Woodward was randomly assigned by the agency she works for to deliver his at-home physical therapy. “I said, ‘Holy smokes’ when I found out it was him,” said Woodward. Now it was her turn to play the role of instructor — and mentor. And according to Kowalsky, she aced his treatment as well.

“I always knew that, someday, one of my students would end up providing health care to me,” said Kowalsky, who taught for 41 years. In fact, several QU PT alumni helped him take his first steps after his procedures at MidState Medical Center in Meriden, Connecticut, and Joe Consalvo ’09 filled in for Woodward on one of the home PT sessions.

Woodward knows recovering from a knee replacement is painful, and she empathizes with her clients. She is an avid runner, biker and Ironman participant who has undergone various shoulder, hip and hamstring procedures that enable her to continue doing what she loves. In fact, she says she is not happy — or “pleasant to be around” — unless she runs and bikes six hours every day. She admits to being addicted to the endorphins she gets from exercise.

“I get up at 4 a.m., and I get out and go, and then I work later in the day,” she said. “It’s complete addiction — I  can run for two hours and be completely lost in thought.” Often, those thoughts turn to her life-changing experiences in Kona, Hawaii. In August 2017, she qualified for the annual Ironman World Championship in Kona — considered one of the world’s toughest and most physically demanding triathlons. The invite-only event — limited to 2,000 participants — begins with a 2.4-mile ocean swim followed by 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.

Woodward completed the 2017 event despite undergoing shoulder surgery earlier that year. After the surgery, her shoulder was immobilized in a device for six weeks and her doctor banned running for four months.

“I was crushed, but then I bought a bike trainer and used it with a sling on my arm, and that summer I qualified for Kona the first time I tried,” she recalled. She returned to that island paradise in 2019 to compete again, and she dreams of going back.

Her home care job at VNA Community Healthcare and Hospice allows her the flexibility to exercise and to keep up with the activities of her five children, aged 14 to 19. She shares that role with her husband of 20 years, Keith Woodward ’88, associate vice president for facilities operations at Quinnipiac. They met when Keith was an assistant coach for the tennis team and Karen was a student-athlete.

Tales of her Kona adventures no doubt inspired Kowalsky as he worked to regain his mobility, not only during his stationary bike and stretching sessions with Woodward but with the daily “homework” she assigned — biking and exercising five times a day.

These days, Woodward’s sole focus is on clients recovering from joint, hip and knee surgeries. She compared the recovery process from orthopedic surgery to a pizza: “It’s 30% your surgeon, 30% me, and 40% is you. You have to do the work. I give you as much as I can to create the best possible outcome, but the ball is in your court.”

Kowalsky recalls the day Woodward called to schedule his PT. She said, “‘I’m a former student, are you OK with that?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely, I’d be delighted!’” Kowalsky recalled. She walked into his Guilford home with 23 years of experience and a working relationship with his surgeon, so she was familiar with his therapy preferences.

“Knee patients feel great in the hospital, but I get them when the pain block has worn off,” she said. Woodward emphasized the importance of getting patients moving the first two weeks, despite pain, to prevent excessive scar tissue from forming, which can stiffen knees and lengthen the recovery time. “It can be scary for them to face the swelling and pain, and their leg can be black and blue all the way down, but exercise is a huge piece of their recovery,” she noted.

“Karen was wonderful, and she helped me out a great deal … I did so well that I was able to have my second knee done two months after the first; normally, people wait at least three months," Kowalsky explained. The day before this interview, he had challenged his new knees to a day of fly fishing on the Salmon River in Colchester, Connecticut.

Professor and former student stand in a living room posing for a photo
Don Kowalsky '77 and Karen Woodward '99 reversed roles for recent physical therapy sessions. Woodward was a student of Kowalsky's at Quinnipiac.

“I tell my patients, ‘You had elective surgery … you did this for your quality of life.’ I really enjoy seeing people get that back. Don texted me to say he went fishing,” Woodward said, displaying the expansive smile that makes her facial features glow when she talks about her job.

Just last summer, Kowalsky’s fishing trips ended in disappointment. “I fell in the water three times … they were a train wreck. My knees were not stable wading on the stones.” His sons persuaded him to get the surgery he was putting off. Now fishing is back, and he’s looking forward to golfing this summer.

While teaching at Quinnipiac in the early ’80s, he played on an intramural football team with students and tore his anterior cruciate ligament, which helps stabilize the knee joint. He never had it repaired. In fact, Woodward recalls Kowalsky telling that story in class. After arthritis set in years later, and he began limiting physical activities, Kowalsky knew the time had come.

“Karen took out my staples, got me on an exercise program, educated me about what to look for, and she taught me a great deal. What I appreciated most was her confidence building and advice on what I should and should not be doing,” Kowalsky said.

Woodward credited her former professor for teaching her much of what she knows. Today she performs a similar role for clients. “I am big into educating my patients. I find they are more compliant if they know what we’re doing,” she said.

Kowalsky is not the only one enjoying an active summer. Woodward completed a half Ironman in St. George, Utah, on May 1, and a full Ironman in Tulsa, OK, May 23. Tulsa was a qualifier for this year’s world championship.

“A lot happened in 2020 that prevented me from doing what I love. It’s a blessing and a gift to be able to return to the sport and competition. I will not take that for granted. Qualifying for Kona this year or any year will just be icing on the cake,” she said.

“There is nothing like Kona — it’s the race of all races,” she exclaimed.

Her first time in Kona, in 2017, her family cheered her on, and they island hopped afterward. In 2019, she went by herself to run and bike for a week before the race. “It’s so awesome and so beautiful, and I was so into my element,” she said. The slowest part of the race for Woodward is the swimming portion, but she makes up the time in the running part.

“In 2017, I was 88th out of the water amid 94 people in my age group, but I finished 20-something,” she said. She was elated to discover “that I could hang with these guys!”

During the 2019 race, she got to her bike after the swim to find a flat tire. The bikes are stored in wooden flats, and she figured the tire had been jammed in there by volunteers and accidentally punctured. Inflating the tire cost her some time.

Karen Woodward rides her bike at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawai'i

During the 2019 race, she got to her bike after the swim to find a flat tire. The bikes are stored in wooden flats, and she figured the tire had been jammed in there by volunteers and accidentally punctured. Inflating the tire cost her some time.

Her best Ironman finish ever came in 2018 in Maryland, with a time of 10 hours, 20 minutes. Woodward maintains that anyone, regardless of age, size and ability, can do an Ironman. “The best thing is going back to the finish line at midnight to watch the last people cross it — they are the true heroes putting everything on the line to get over that line!”

Woodward follows no special nutrition or training plan. “I don’t drink, smoke or take drugs — never have — and I don’t eat meat. I’m very boring, but I eat what I want,” she said, admitting she does enjoy cookies and brownies now and then.

At one time, she dreamed of being a surgeon, but wanted to be a mother more, and thought the two jobs might prove difficult. After giving birth to their five children, she became a surrogate and had four more babies — including twins — for friends who could not carry children themselves.

“I knew I wanted to be a surrogate after I had our first child. Keith told me I would not be able to give up that first surrogate baby, and I said, ‘It’s not my baby!’”

She ran during all of the pregnancies, which was something the expectant parents needed to be on board with when she was their surrogate. “It was an honor that they trusted me to carry their babies. I was just the oven,” she said.

Woodward is looking forward to testing her endurance with her first Ultraman competition in February 2022. This event, held in Florida, will incorporate a 6.2-mile swim the first day plus a 92-mile bike ride; 171 miles on the bike the second day; and a 52.4-mile run on the third day.

And she’d also like to return to school to get a physician assistant degree. “I still want to be in the operating room, but I don’t want to give up PT — I’d like to meld the two somehow.”

Kowalsky is still savoring the moment Woodward reappeared in his life. “To have her as a student, then have her knock on my door and teach me to be confident about my rehab, it’s wonderful. It’s been very rewarding, especially sitting in retirement, to know that what I did over the last 40 years made a difference, not only to me but to others as well!”

Photos by Autumn Driscoll

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