“Oh my,” Paul Telega thought when Joe David was assigned to be his lab partner as the two prepared for their careers in physical therapy. Both attended the University of Pittsburgh in the 1980s and eventually earned their doctorate degrees.
At 6-feet-5, David, a standout on the Panthers’ basketball team, towered over Telega, who stands in at 5 feet, 4 inches.
“All I could think of was I got to work on this guy?” Telega said of the manipulations, stretching exercises and other lessons each had to perform on the other during classes. Quite concerned, Telega talked to his instructor. “The professor told me, you are going to have to deal with it because you’re going to be working (professionally) on all kinds of shapes and sizes,” Telega said of the conversation.
While David, indeed, was “challenging” to work on, he proved easy to work with.
“He was real amicable. A friendly person, inquisitive, humble, concerning,” Telega said. “He had that thirst and hunger to learn. You could tell that he would be a great physical therapist.”
For more than 30 years, David has served the South Hills and Pittsburgh as one of its premier therapists. In fact, he celebrated 25 years of private practice after opening the David Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine Center in Mt. Lebanon in 1994.
“Joe puts his heart and soul into this. He has direct hands in here and is very involved in people’s lives,” said Telega. “To him, a person is more than a broken bone or a torn ligament. He provides excellent care to everyone, and because of that, he gets quality outcomes with patients.”
That has always been David’s goal since entering the profession.
During his academic days, when he excelled at basketball for Upper St. Clair, David became interested in the medical profession. That, in part, was one reason why he accepted a scholarship to play for Pitt. Mulling over a chance to play basketball in Europe, David settled on physical therapy upon the suggestion of his athletic trainer, Dave Perrin.
“(Perrin) told me, ‘you ought to think about physical therapy,’ and in my infinite wisdom, I said, ‘what’s physical therapy?’ Once he explained it to me, and I learned about it, I really felt it was something that really clicked with me because I wanted a good quality life. I did not want to be at the beck and call of people in the middle of the night and things of that nature. I just wanted to take care of people, and I wanted to get to know those people.
“The field has been fantastic for me. Wonderful, and I love it,” David continued. “I have no regrets whatsoever about not being a (medical) doctor. I didn’t see it at the time, but it’s actually been a blessing in disguise because I love what I do.”
Before he opened his private practice, David served as the director at the South Hills Sports Medicine Clinic, located on Vanadium Road and owned by a physicians group. He also was the director of physical therapy for the visiting nurses association of Allegheny County.
His practice began in a small space on Cochran Road before he built the facility on Castle Shannon Boulevard in 1997. Before his staff blossomed to 15 employees, David was a jack-of-all-trades. He said he would run the sweeper, answer his phone, do the billing and transcriptions all while treating patients.
Starting a business was even more complicated as David was both a newlywed and a young father. In 1988, he had married his college sweetheart, Sandy, who was a cheerleader at Pitt. The couple had two young boys, Jeremy and Justin, before a third, Jonny, would arrive in 1996. Samantha came along in 2000. She is now a member of the University of Pittsburgh’s dance team.
“I wouldn’t trade those days for the world,” David said. “It was a grind, but I had to do it. Besides, it was a lot of fun.”
David did not enjoy hearing discouraging words from his colleagues. They said it was a “bad time” to go into private practice because Universal Health Care was on the horizon. David would not be able to survive, they predicted.
“It was a tough time, especially when everybody was telling me not to do this, but I knew I had to take that chance because it’s my personality. I’m always looking for something. We started out in a little place, and we’ve been rolling ever since.”
Since 1994, David’s physical therapy and sports medicine center has treated “thousands of thousands of people” in southwestern Pennsylvania. David has managed the care and recovery of such prominent people as two-time Olympic gold-medalist Suzie McConnell-Serio, former Chicago Cub third baseman Kevin Orie, former Pittsburgh Pirates like Steve Blass and Dave Giusti, Pittsburgh Steelers, including Rocky Belier, and announcers such as Myron Cope and Ron Jaye as well as some Pittsburgh Penguins and other professional athletes from visiting teams. He has also treated actors and actresses and even had his own trailer on the sets of motion pictures being filmed in the region.
“It’s been a lot of fun, but I’m as proud of getting Mrs. Jones back to making her sauce as much as I am getting those guys back on the field. It’s as much fun and rewarding, but there is a little more pressure with those guys because they make a lot more money, and you want to make sure you get those guys better,” he admitted.
“But to me, (my patients) are all celebrities. That person that you are treating is a celebrity to somebody. It’s somebody’s mom or grandma, son or grandson, daughter, dad. You treat them all the same.”
David treats his staff of 15 equally well. Those that start with him stay. A few have 20-plus years of service. For example, Telega, 59, started working part-time in the practice in 1997 and gradually built up to full-time by 2000.
“It’s a great place to work,” said the Mt. Lebanon resident. “Joe not only cares about his patients, he cares about his staff,” he added, noting how David came to the hospital and prayed with him when his father was sick and dying. “He provides excellent care for his patients.”
Joe Wolk agreed. The 53-year-old Peters Township resident started working with David at South Hills Sports Medicine in 1989. When David expanded his practice, he hired Wolk, who was “looking for a change” at the time.
“It was the right move,” Wolk said. “I’m happy here. Joe’s a good guy, and I wanted to join him.
“It’s a great place to work, and it’s nice when we are all working well together. It’s nice to see when everybody is all at the top of their game, and things are working efficiently. That’s what makes this place so special. The teamwork and making patients a priority and trying to make sure the people are well-taken care of all of the time and not neglected or left along.
“Nothing is compromised,” Wolk continued. “We make sure everybody gets quality care. The best thing about working here is hearing patients say that they had a good experience.”
The past three years have been a great experience for David because his son, Jeremy, joined the practice. After graduating from Upper St. Clair High School, the 27-year-old Scott Township resident earned a marketing and business finance degree from Virginia Tech before attending physical therapy school at the University of Pittsburgh.
“It’s been a dream come true. Better than I could have imagined,” said Jeremy.
“I never expected it to be this enjoyable. To be able to learn from my dad, who is also a role model and figure to me, well, the experience has been invaluable. I wanted to learn from him because who better to do that with than someone who has the most successful private practice in the South Hills, maybe Pittsburgh.
“I feel weird saying this because he is my dad, but he’s a good person, too. I get to see it everyday and how he interacts with patients and how kind good-hearted he is and how much he cares for people. It goes the same with basketball. He cares for every one of those players that come through.”
For the past 19 years, Dr. David has served as the basketball coach at Mt. Lebanon High School, recording more than 300 victories, three WPIAL championships and one PIAA runner-up title. He has coached his two younger sons, both of whom went on to play at the Division I level. Justin played at South Florida, and Jonny competed at Kentucky. Both are in the process of becoming physical therapists, too. In fact, Justin will be joining the practice in May.
“No,” said David, “it really isn’t my dream to have all my children working with me. My dream, as any parent, is that they do things that make them happy, and they find their passion.”
Noting all three siblings and their sister get along “wonderfully,” Dr. David admits a goal for sure would be to “maybe let them run the place” once he retires. At age 55, that, however, is a long way off.
“Because I still love it,” he said. “I enjoy doing this. This is something that I could do until I’m pretty old because I haven’t found that one thing to occupy my time.”
When he is not at the rehab center or coaching the Blue Devils boys basketball team, David instructs at the NCAA College Basketball Academy. The developmental program gives prospective student-athletes a sample of the college basketball experience. Plus, David works at Tim Grgurich’s NBA Camps during the summer.
“Physical therapy and basketball are my passions. That’s it,” David said.
But David also finds time to maintain his fitness level. At his in-home gym, he works out for 2.5 hours, four days a week. His go-to piece of equipment is the elliptical machine, where he will spend 50 minutes on the strider at a Level 8 pace. At that rate, he can burn upwards of 1,000 calories.
“I’m going fast. It’s not an easy workout,” he admitted. “That’s just my competitiveness.”
Every workout that is documented to the step and regards to how he felt during the session.
“It keeps me fit.”
David laughed and added, “I’m a little obsessive about it. Our vacations are built around hotels that have those machines, and my kids know that not until I get off that elliptical can I or them relax.”
If David does overdo it and needs physical therapy, where does he go?
“Right here,” he said. He noted that David Farrah, who has been with him for 19 years, works at the facility and is his “right arm” as he trained under him at South Hills before going to physical therapy school.
David enjoys the relationships he develops with his patients. He takes pride in seeing them get back on their feet. He says each day he comes to work, he gets to experience something new. It could be a new patient with a unique personality.
“It might be a very similar problem, but to motivate and treat that patient, it’s going to be on an individual basis. It’s never old. It’s always new and exciting. The opportunity to meet new people, every day when you walk in and try to make their lives better and improve their lives. Improve their function. Help them sleep at night without pain. Or get them on a bike and ride without pain. Things like that are so very rewarding.”
Recovery is its own reward. Dr. David says that most people tell him they enjoyed their therapy sessions and they had a great time but, no offense, they hope they never see him again.
“I’ll say, well maybe at the Giant Eagle. Then I’ll ask them how they’re doing.”
David admitted, “I don’t want to meet people this way, but the joys of my business are that I do get to see people and spend time with them. Where else am I able to sit down and talk to people and get to know them. They will come in, and I will spend six weeks with them and listen to their stories and learn about their families and concerns.
“We do the best we can with them. We want to get them back as quickly as possible to doing what they do. We are going to do the best we possibly can. There is going to be no stone unturned. We are going to do what we can, as well as we can, to make you better. It won’t be for lack of effort or lack of thought that you don’t get better.”
Telega agrees that David exhausts all efforts. That’s one reason why the rehab center is always busy, and people return for future treatments.
“Once you come here, we don’t lose too many. People who have been to other places and come here say it’s not like this everywhere else. They seem to like it. They say I’m coming here next time, or I’m recommending this place to my friends.”
“When you see them at the supermarket or on the streets, and you ask them how they are doing, and they say, ‘oh, I can walk, or I can move my arm,’ then you can see how your work has paid off. Every day is a highlight,” Telega said.
Jeremy David added, “obviously, we don’t want you to get hurt in the first place, but if you did get hurt, we’re the place for you. We are here for people.
“Our philosophy is always the patients are first. You care for them just like you would a family member. They are in pain and you want to help that person. Once they get inside these doors, the focus is on the patient. That’s all that matters.”