Carriage House

Postural restoration has become one of Estelle LeClair’s specialties

by Will Lindner

essexpt0315Since the mid 1990s, Estelle LeClair and her husband, Jeff, have built Essex Physical Therapy, with locations at the Towne Marketplace and Town Meadow, into a thriving physical rehabilitation business.

In 2003, Estelle LeClair had a master’s degree in physical therapy, 11 years’ experience in hospital and clinical settings, and a private practice in Essex Junction with a growing clientele. Nevertheless, she was caught by surprise when an instructor in Portland, Maine, where she had gone for a weekend of continuing education, completed his introductory remarks, read her name tag, and said, “Estelle, we’re going to show you how to decrease your shoulder pain.”

“I hadn’t said anything!” she recalls. In fact, she had been in pain for some time, since falling on the ice while turning to protect the 3-year-old in her arms. Yet she wasn’t aware of anything in her physical comportment that betrayed her discomfort.

“He gave me an exercise for my pelvis that made my right-shoulder pain go away,” Estelle recalls, repeating it for emphasis. “A pelvic exercise for the shoulder!”

“Now she does the same thing,” her husband, Jeff, chimes in. “We’ll be on a beach somewhere and she’ll go up to some stranger and offer advice about some problem she knows he’s having.”

Estelle laughs, but acknowledges that it’s true. She has become adept at reading trouble signs in people’s posture and carriage, and while she once would have shied away from approaching them, she is now less restrained.

“It comes from the heart, from wanting to help people,” she says. “You know there’s an ‘itis’ [a painful inflammation] brewing somewhere.”

More profoundly, the experience in Maine shifted the course of her practice, not away from traditional therapies, which she and her staff (which has grown to 10 practitioners in addition to herself) continue to provide at Essex Physical Therapy (EPT), but toward embracing a new specialty: postural restoration (PR). Estelle compares it to renovating the foundation of a house to bring its structural elements into alignment — without which the building (or the body) is imperiled.

She followed up that initial continuing education experience in 2003 by pursuing the full curriculum offered by the Nebraska-based Postural Restoration Institute. In 2007 she earned certification in this specialized field, and in December 2012 she opened the very first therapy pool (“first in the world,” says Jeff) specifically designed for PR. While aquatic therapy is a common practice, what’s unique about this pool, Estelle explains, are the seven “stations” where clients experience jets of water pumped toward them in different patterns. They respond by activating certain muscles to stabilize themselves.

“The pool will facilitate muscles that are underactive or inhibit muscles that are overactive,” says Estelle. “Overactive muscles are the ‘itis’ factor.”

The postural restoration pool is located at EPT’s second location, in the Town Meadow development off Essex Way. For the LeClairs, the financial investment was a reach, and at first it went horribly awry. The components were built in California, then shipped to Vermont for assembly. But even before construction was finished, leaks were detected and the backfill material was saturated. The LeClairs were referred to Jerry Davis, president of PeakCM LLC, known for his experience with water-related construction projects in Florida and Vermont, including the water park at Jay Peak.

“They had this nightmare issue going on,” says Davis. “I went to look at it and just give them advice, frankly, but we struck up a relationship. Estelle and Jeff are some of the most genuine, real people I know. Estelle really cares about people; she’s in the perfect profession for her.”

Excavating and reconstructing the pool and the enclosed space around it was, Davis says, an enormous challenge, with time of the essence. “They were paying a construction loan and every day unopened represented revenue they were losing.” PeakCM completed the project in eight months, enabling EPT to start using it for patients in December 2012. Now, Estelle says, word has gotten out. “We’re starting to see people from upstate New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Boston — our goal is that somewhere in the future there will be more of these pools in the universe.”

When Estelle (then Estelle Sweeney) was 15 years old, living with her mother, Carol Fullington, in Fairfax and attending Bellows Free Academy, her mother took a serious fall when she leaned against a porch railing that gave way. She spent time in a rehabilitation center in Burlington, where Estelle saw how therapists directed her recovery and that of other patients.

“The motivational spirit in this place was palpable,” she says. Inspired, she volunteered at a nursing home in St. Albans, exploring the possibility of a career in health care. Because she loved sports — playing field hockey, basketball, softball, and soccer — she decided that physical therapy was a natural fit.

At the same time, she was getting acquainted with another Bellows Free Academy student, Jeff LeClair. “My best friend and her best friend were brother and sister,” says Jeff. “That made it easy.”

Jeff graduated in 1984 and pursued an associate’s degree in engineering at Champlain College; Estelle graduated in 1987 and departed for Springfield College in Massachusetts, earning her master’s in physical therapy in 1992. They were married soon after her graduation; he was working for his father’s construction company, and she took a position at a local rehabilitation center.

By the mid ’90s, Estelle had decided to change course. Patients at the rehab center, she believed, needed to work with the same therapist daily, especially with insurance companies’ insisting on shorter treatment periods. A private practice, the couple decided, would provide Estelle greater flexibility so they could start a family.

She teamed up with two colleagues to launch Essex Physical Therapy at the Towne Marketplace (her individual practice is called LeClair Therapy, Inc.), and she and Jeff began turning out sons: Alex, now a UVM business major, in 1994; Jeremy, a senior at Essex High School, in 1996; and Zachary, a ninth-grader at Essex, in 2000.

As their sons grew, so did Essex PT. They shifted to larger quarters at the Towne Marketplace, where her associate Veronica Paquette installed an underwater treadmill, and in 2010 opened the larger facility at Town Meadow, with five examination rooms, a massage room, gym space, and, in 2012, the PR pool. Jeff’s construction skills came into play, overseeing facility management at both spaces, and eventually assuming billing responsibilities.

With these resources, Estelle has diversified her practice by employing practitioners with an array of specialties: a certified dance therapist, an athletic trainer, clinicians with geriatric skills, and yoga and Pilates classes open to the public at both locations.

“But what I think is really important is that we provide one-on-one care,” she says. “At some clinics the therapist will be working with two people — one on a treadmill, another doing something else.”

With fewer patients per therapist, Estelle points out, they need to be productive and successful to sustain revenue. Yet she is committed to that direct, personal interaction. Kim Gleason of Essex, whose children have been treated at Essex PT for sports injuries and who has, herself, been a client of Estelle’s, says this commitment to personalized interventions yields profounder, longer-lasting results. Gleason had suffered for 30 years from a disc fracture sustained in high school, its effects growing more and more ingrained as she altered her movements to avoid pain.

“Estelle asked me, ‘What’s your goal? What do you want to be able to do that you can’t do?’” says Gleason. “We went running together, we went to yoga together, so she could observe how I use my body. It was about getting to the root. Over nine months I learned a tremendous amount about training my body to do the things I want to do. It was an incredible transformation.”

An even more serious case was Gleason’s daughter Lindsey, who at age 12 sustained a herniated disc in a gymnastics performance. Estelle coordinated her restorative physical therapy with the care Lindsey was receiving from specialists at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“Estelle was absolutely relentless in looking for ways to alleviate Lindsey’s nerve pain,” says Gleason. “But what I think is their true gift is helping their clients understand how to retrain themselves so they can be safe doing what they love to do.” This year, at age 15, Lindsey competed again in all the categories of gymnastics, including the one that injured her.

Estelle’s passion for healthy, usable bodies is mirrored in Jeff’s longtime commitment to coaching (name the sport, and Jeff has coached it) for their three sons. The sons now chip in at the business, with Alex applying his lessons in projections and analysis at UVM and Zach cleaning the pool. Their favorite family getaways are beach vacations in warm, nurturing destinations like Hawai’i and the Caribbean.

At home, the adults keep active, too. Jeff will take off on 100-mile snowmobile trips at the drop of a hat; Estelle plays indoor soccer in a women’s league and travels with friends to run half marathons in other cities and states.

Bodies should be tended with care, she knows, but they’re also meant to be used. Estelle LeClair’s life’s work lies in the intersection of those beliefs. •