When just about every other business in town is closed the day after Christmas, Bruce Bender cheerfully answers the phone and says, “Yes, I’m open.”
Bender is the owner and operator of Pinal Mountain Rehab, his physical therapy business.
After a brief introduction at the start of his interview, one of the first things Bender has to share is, “I have been misunderstood my whole life.”
This happened to be a quiet moment; he had just reopened his doors after lunch hour. It wouldn’t be long before this house, converted into a rehab center, comes alive with the clamor of patients riding stationary bikes, using elliptical machines, lifting weights, and chatting.
“I have a dry sense of humor,” the New Jersey native cheerfully adds.
It also wouldn’t be long before Bender’s “dry humor” slips out. Some could take offense. He likens it to a sort of sleight of hand. Perhaps it is simply the result of flying as an U.S. Army pilot in Vietnam.
“I use it to distract my patients from something unpleasant,” he explains.
Such un-pleasantries can take the form of meningitis, bullet wounds, injuries, Parkinson’s disease, and cancer. Whatever a person’s medical condition may be, for the last 34 years, Bender has worked to help heal people across this region, from Globe-Miami to Phoenix to Winkelman.
Dry humor aside, those around him, patients and colleagues alike, agree he has a heart of gold.
“He never turns anyone down,” says Cheryl Long, Bender’s office manager. Long has worked with Bender on and off for the last 30 years, before he bought his former office on Ash Street 25 years ago.
“He’s just the kind of person that, whatever you need to get better, he will help you,” she adds.
Bender works six days a week. He typically sees between 18 to 25 patients on any given day at the office. He is known to treat people with or without insurance, and to adjust bills for patients. He doesn’t charge for copays or deductibles. Hospitals in Phoenix and Tucson refer their clients to him. He spends half of each week traveling to patients who are homebound or lack transportation in Kearny, Winkelman, and Superior. He has been known to accept Monster drinks (caffeinated beverages) when clients can’t afford to pay for treatment. He frequently transports stationary bicycles to his patients’ homes and leaves them with patients until no longer needed.
“He is the only physical therapist that makes house calls and throws equipment into his truck to lend to people,” says Sue Tippett, one of Bender’s clients.
Tippett brought a friend who had just gotten out of brain surgery to Bender for treatment seven or eight years ago. Then she began bringing her mother, Dorothy, to him as well. Tippett also began to see Bender for problems with her own shoulder.
“He’s obviously not here to get rich, although he could be rich,” she says. “He’s here to take care of people.”
Pat England, a Globe native, went to Bender in 1999 after a car accident. He helped her recover after five or six weeks. Bender also helped her son heal from car accident 10 years later. He had a massive skull fracture, his neck was broken in three places, and his arm was badly broken. He would need plate screws to get his arm back together.
“Even with all those injuries, Bruce had him back to 90 percent of use of that left arm,” she remembers. “And within a little over four months, maybe four and a half months after that really bad car accident, he was back at work full-time as an auto mechanic… And he credits Bruce for helping him recover. The only thing that kept him from getting 100 percent extension of that arm were the screws that went in through the elbow all down the length of his arm.”
Then, in 2010, England was hit with a chronic illness, and eventually tore her rotator cuffs in both shoulders. She constantly battles weakness and fatigue, with back, neck, shoulder, and knee pain. And, due to her illness, surgery for her rotator cuffs were not an option.
“I was so weak when I first went to him then, I could hardly even do much of anything on his equipment,” she recalls. “Now I can work out pretty well on my better days. But I think without having continued going to Bruce and having his help working out and maintaining and strengthening all those muscles, I probably would’ve been bed-ridden quite a while ago.”
What has helped England immensely is Bender’s flexibility with clients. Although she tries to go in for physical therapy with Bender two to three times a week, sometimes fatigue will get the best of her, so much that she can’t go.
“Bruce has a flexible schedule and he’ll accommodate your needs. He just works people in,” she says.
“He’s not normally open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but I’ve heard him tell people that he’ll meet them there at a certain time on days that he’s not normally open,” she adds. “I don’t think most places do that.”
“It’s not the most brilliant business model,” Bender admits, a Monster drink in hand. “You have to make a choice between profit or people.”
“I’m not a business man; I’m not a money guy,” he adds. “I help people whatever situation they’re in.”
Bender has been in the physical therapy business since 1975, when he landed a job just two weeks before graduating from Ithaca College in New York with a degree in physical therapy. Licensed in 15 states, he wound up in Globe in seven years later as a traveling therapist working out of Gila General Hospital, and has been here ever since.
“Everybody is different, every problem is different,” Bender says. “If someone is weak, I try to get them strong. If they are tight, I get them more flexible. If they are in pain, I try to ease it.”
Bender says he didn’t go into physical therapy knowing that he would help people. But, he says, it turns out that helping people is an enjoyable practice.
Jenn Walker began writing for Globe Miami Times in 2012 and has been a contributor ever since. Her work has also appeared in Submerge Magazine, Sacramento Press, Sacramento News & Review and California Health Report. She currently teaches Honors English at High Desert Middle School and mentors Globe School District’s robotics team.