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Alumni Spotlight: Gayle Severance

September 22, 2015

By Queen Muse, Drexel University Online

Twice in the past four years, Philadelphia has been the site of surgical firsts in the field of hand transplantation, and both times, Gayle Severance ’04 played a key role in their success.

In 2011, Philadelphia physicians performed the world’s first bilateral hand transplant on an adult. That laid the groundwork for this year’s successful first-time double hand transplant on a child.

Severance, a graduate of Drexel’s Advanced Practice in Hand and Upper Quarter Rehabilitation post-bachelor’s certificate program, was part of a select team of hand therapists at the center of both historic operations, during which she helped the patients adapt physically and emotionally to life with donated limbs.

“If you get a heart transplant, it’s inside, and nobody sees it. But with a limb, it’s so visible and it’s so personal,” Severance says. “So, our biggest role is to help the patient, not just physically — to protect their limbs, and gain motion and function in their new limbs — but helping them to accept their new limbs as their own.”

Severance was one of several hand therapists who treated Lindsay Ess, a quadruple amputee who lost both of her hands and feet due to a debilitating infection. After her surgery, Severance spent four months with Ess, guiding her through hours of therapy; sometimes moving Ess’ new hands for her, helping her to stretch and bend them until she was able to move them on her own. Ess has achieved major improvement in her hand functions since her early days in therapy. She is now able to drive, is actively involved with Crossroads Adaptive Athletic Alliance, and participates in adaptive cross fit competitions. Severance still sees her once a year for routine assessments. 

In the most recent bilateral hand transplant, performed on 8-year-old Zion Harvey, Severance was called in to provide insight from her previous experience to the team of physicians who performed the surgery at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The story of Harvey’s 11-hour breakthrough procedure claimed the attention of audiences across the country and around the world.

“It’s a very emotional treatment when somebody gets new hands for the first time,” Severance explains. “And it’s a very emotionally challenging experience for all of the family and medical caregivers, and the stress on the therapist is real high. It’s important to have that support from somebody who’s been through it before.”

Having served as a hand therapist for Good Shepherd Penn Partners rehabilitation services for the past 10 years, Severance is no stranger to the complexities of major transplant surgery rehabilitation. But she says her time in Drexel’s Advanced Practice in Hand and Upper Quarter Rehabilitation certificate program truly helped her to become a better clinician.

“Drexel’s program helped me to improve my knowledge and confidence to go on to get my board certification and take on these leadership roles,” Severance says. “It also opened doors for me in the sense of communicating with colleagues. It gave me a community to talk to when I needed advice or information about treatment. Anytime you can turn to somebody for advice, it’s so helpful.”

Drexel’s Hand and Upper Quarter Rehabilitation certificate program was created in 1999 to teach physical and occupational therapists how to properly examine and treat patients with hand and upper extremity dysfunction and is now also offered as a hybrid online program. Since its inception, more than 90 percent of all participants in the program have gone on to pass state exams for physical therapy certifications.

The program is run by Jane Fedorczyk, a clinical professor and director of Post-Professional Clinical Programs at Drexel. Fedorczyk says she personally encourages her students to engage in professional lifelong learning and to continue advancing the field.

“I have a very close relationship with the hand students and the alumni. My philosophy is anything I do to make them a better clinician means that the quality of patient care in the specialty practice is going to improve,” Fedorczyk says. “The thing that I find most rewarding is seeing my students take on leadership roles and Gayle is a perfect example of that.”

Since attending Drexel, Severance has gone on to participate in several medical missions involving hand therapy and has received multiple teaching awards, including the 2014 Vargas International Hand Therapist Teaching Award from the American Association for Hand Surgery.  She says it was Fedorczyk’s advice that encouraged her to pursue additional opportunities in the hand therapy field.

“Jane has gotten me more involved in the American Society for Hand Therapists and other organizations in our field,” Severance says. “Had I not met Jane and come to Drexel I do not believe I would be in the position I am in today.”

Severance’s current role as a team leader in hand therapy is a long way from her initial college dream of becoming a lawyer and working in government, but she says she has no regrets.

“It’s not my dream job, it’s my perfect fit job,” she said. “I learned more about occupational therapy through some colleagues, but once I did an internship in hand therapy, I fell in love with it. I sort of fell backward into it, and it worked out perfectly.”