Karen Kukolich, healer and angler

A passion for fishing as kept Karen Kukolich on the go around the the Island and around the world.
Photo courtesy of Karen Kukolich

A passion for fishing as kept Karen Kukolich on the go around the the Island and around the world.

Ah, those long, lazy days of retirement, contemplating decades of work, maybe organizing the CD collection by artist. Not so fast.

Karen Kukolich doesn’t roll that way. Community servant, accomplished athlete, globetrotting angler, the Island’s grande dame of physical therapy, she spent nearly a week telephone-tagging with a reporter trying to find time to talk.

It was Derby time and she’d been fishing. “I only weighed in two fish, a blue and an albie (false albacore),” she said over coffee at the Harbor View Hotel. In 2001, she was the Grand Winner in the boat bluefish category.

If life is a series of choices that define us, then Karen Kukolich has been and is known as a caregiver, an active participant in her community, and a sportswoman. An Island resident for 32 years, the Michigan native has been tending to strained souls as well as to aching bodies both as a healthcare professional and as a mainstay of community service here. Ms. Kukolich closed her 25-year physical therapy practice in Edgartown last April.

Her passion for fishing and work meshed immediately on the Island. “Bob Langlois was the hospital administrator then,” she said, looking back on the interview for the job that brought her to the Island. “Terrific guy. He said if I took the job, he’d take me fishing.

“I grew up fly fishing on lakes and streams, not on beaches. I fumbled around, finally caught a two-pound bluefish and went from there,” Ms. Kukolich said. “My fly rod has taken me all over the world, and made me some wonderful friends.” She is on the board of the International Women Fly Fishers.

Getting from Michigan to Martha’s Vineyard took a while. “I graduated from Ithaca College in New York with a degree in physical therapy and worked in a group practice in Michigan for a few years, then came to Boston after a couple of years for a business venture that didn’t work out,” Ms. Kukolich said. “I went looking for a job and saw in The Boston Globe that the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital wanted a physical therapist.

“It was a very small department and the hospital was undergoing a lot of change in administration in those years. There were three people in the physical therapy department when I started. I set up and organized the department with a part-timer who worked five days a week. After five years, I left and began doing home visits with the Vineyard Nursing Association (VNA) for a couple of years before going into practice full-time in Dr. Mills’s former office on North Summer Street in Edgartown. My dog was my secretary. I stayed there for more than 20 years before moving to Upper Main Street.”

The practice of physical therapy has changed dramatically in the last quarter century. “In those days we could see patients without a doctor’s referral, so you were a bit of a diagnostician, though I always sent patients to a doctor if I suspected something was going on,” Ms. Kukolich said. “Today, the entry-level requirement is a doctorate and the sub-specialties — massage, acupuncture, holistic, alternative, chiropractic and sports specialties — have grown enormously. On the Island today, the hospital probably has eight people doing PT in various departments and there are two private practices on the Island. The VNA does a lot of therapeutic home visits. Everyone has a two- or three-week waiting list.”

While the injuries haven’t changed much, treatment of them and the need for treatment have changed. “Shoulder and back injuries are the most common, followed closely by knee and hip injuries,” Ms. Kukolich said, adding that new procedures, like hip and knee replacements, and general awareness of the benefits of exercise among an aging population have created demand for more physical therapy.

“Are we less fit?” she asked rhetorically. “I don’t know, but more people are conscious of the importance of exercise as we age. Years ago, people thought that as you got older, you became less flexible and that was that. Now we understand that’s not true, no matter how old we are. I saw a 92-year-old woman who just had a hip replacement. She’s doing fine. You can improve mobility and muscle strength at any age. Live right and exercise,” she counseled.

“We can become stronger at any age as long as we’re willing to exercise. As you get older, it’s more important. I had a knee replacement two years ago. I use this knee to climb into the boat. I’ll probably have the other one done.”

With a knee replacement and multiple shoulder surgeries, Ms. Kukolich identifies with patients. “I know exactly what they are going through,” she said. “I think it makes a big difference to treat the person, not just the injury. To know what motivates them to do the (rehabilitation) work. If Medicare cuts continue, patients will have more trouble finding someone to take care of them. That’s why continuing to exercise and good diet is the best insurance you can have.”

Ms. Kukolich is understated with regard to her own accomplishments. She had never thought about the number of patients she’s treated and, when asked, took some time before estimating she has administered more than 80,000 physical therapy treatments in her 44 years in practice, most of them here on the Island. “After thinking about it, that’s the number, more or less. I’m amazed, but the number of patients add up after all these years,” she said.

What is more difficult to determine is the number of Island residents Ms. Kukolich has helped through community service work. She served as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) for seven years in the 1980s and taught CPR on the Island as a certified CPR instructor. “Everyone should get involved in their community and the Island is a place where community matters,” she said. “When someone has trouble, people just show up for them. This is my home. It’s a special place.”

Ms. Kukolich has served on the Edgartown Finance Advisory Committee, and she is currently a member of Edgartown’s Advisory Committee to the Land Bank.

She’s also focused her “all-in” approach to fishing, serving on the Derby committee for 20 years and as its treasurer after the Derby left the umbrella of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce to become an independent organization. “We donate four to five thousand of pounds of fish fillets a year to the Island senior centers,” she said. “People freeze them for dinner all winter.” She also has a long history of service with the Rod and Gun Club and is a two-time champion in two different shooting categories.

As for physical therapy, Ms. Kukolich may do some home visits in the future. “I miss that part of it,” she said, but today she’s focused on living her new life.

Not that her body is always willing, however. “I’ve been involved in sports and athletics all my life, and after multiple shoulder and knee surgeries, I’m a little creaky in the morning,” she said. “But you gotta keep moving.”