Supervisor retires from team

When Drew Appleman was a youngster in Williamsburg, he would invariably get picked last – or not at all – when his playmates chose sides for baseball.

It wasn’t surprising – because he couldn’t walk well, having been born with cerebral palsy – but it didn’t feel good.

It sensitized him, however, to the feelings of others, helping to make him the kind of boss who gets a party when they retire, as Appleman will in early May, after 45 years in the nuclear medicine department of what is now UPMC Altoona – including the last 40 as supervisor.

Appleman is in chronic pain, but rarely misses work, never complains and always has a kind word, said Mike Corso, executive director of imaging, cardiology and radiation oncology.

He has an infectious laugh, a little high-pitched, almost childlike.

People stop in without worry, including an employee who delivered a message and casually lifted the lid of a jar on his desk, helping herself to a Life Saver. She grinned, walking away.

“I’m like a honey hive,” Appleman said.

“He doesn’t act like he has a disability,” said Keith Grigg, chief technologist for the department and designated replacement for Appleman, who has made the very notion of disability disappear for Grigg.

For Grigg, carrying Appleman’s tray from the cafeteria is now just the equivalent of Appleman’s advice on technical issues in the department.

“No one’s perfect at everything,” Grigg said.

As a child, Appleman used leg braces.

He gave them up during fifth grade because they weren’t helping.

After that, he walked unaided, though with a “scissored gait.”

It was always slow going.

Still, “slow doesn’t mean no,” Appleman said.

Not getting picked for baseball games didn’t lead him to stay indoors, but it did lead him to gravitate toward a nearby orphanage, whose kids, like him, were slighted by circumstance.

He’d play with them, even rough games like tackle football, and he’d go with them in pickup trucks during the summer to trim Christmas trees at a farm near Water Street.

They got $1 an hour, he got 50 cents because he was slow.

Neither his neighborhood nor his orphan friends babied him.

When he fell trying to keep up, “they’d grab ahold of me and go, ‘let’s hurry up – are you crippled or something?'” he said.

His father, who told him he would change things if he could, but also said “life is what it is,” introduced him to hunting and fishing, where he didn’t feel the strain of having to keep up with others on a team.

It was different then, in the 1950s.

Nowadays, there are organizations like the Miracle League that give kids with disabilities opportunities he didn’t have.

Still, he didn’t shy away from teams altogether.

As he grew older, he participated by keeping score and managing equipment.

He wasn’t immune to mischief.

He lived in Catharine Township, on the hill just outside the borough near the bridge across the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River.

He recalls – with embarrassment and reluctance – sharpening long, limber branches, poking them into small apples from the trees in his yard, and flinging them, catapult style, onto the roofs of homes in a trailer park across the river, maybe 200 yards away.

“That’s when I was the rotten apple,” he said. “I got caught a couple of times.”

When he was a kid, he didn’t accept help easily.

As he grew older, and his muscles tightened, that changed.

Twenty or 25 years ago, he began to need “assistive devices” again.

“That’s what they call these little toys,” he said, pointing.

Those toys include a cane for short walks, crutches for longer walks and a manual wheelchair when his family goes on vacation, and they expect lots of walking.

“I don’t want to embarrass myself or hurt anybody,” he said. “You [have] to accept your limitations.”

Nuclear medicine introduces into the body tiny amounts of short-lived radioactive tracer material that is taken up by organs of interest, with the tracer material revealing its presence in images taken by special cameras to show the size, shape and functions of those organs.

For example, patients may ingest a capsule of radioactively tagged iodine, which is taken up in the thyroid gland, which then shows up on the gamma camera.

The field often complements other imaging fields like CT scans and MRIs, according to Appleman, as each type of imaging has its advantages and disadvantages, he said.

In addition to his supervisory duties, which include watching over the flow of patients, ordering certain supplies, ensuring compliance with various agencies and budget oversight, Appleman has done testing through the years – until the last couple, when he’s given that up “because of mobility.”

The hospital’s name has changed five times in his tenure – from Altoona General Hospital to The Altoona Hospital to Altoona Hospital – Center for Medicine to Altoona Regional Health System to UPMC Altoona.

He’s worked under six CEOs – Bernard Carr, Charles Ehredt, Philip Marlott, Robert Tribeck, Jim Barner and now Jerry Murray.

He’s also worked under four administrative directors, worked with nine radiologists and helped 22 interns from his alma mater – the University of Findlay nuclear medicine program – get practical experience that prepared them to pass their professional license exams.

Grigg has worked for Appleman for the past 27 years.

It began when Grigg was an employer of the old Wissinger supermarket chain. He stopped by the hospital one Saturday asking if he could come in and watch.

“I said sure,” Appleman said. “The next thing I know, he had enrolled at Allegheny Community College.”

“He’s a very polite, nice, easygoing gentleman who goes out of his way to do everything he can,” Appleman said.

He’s also a techie who is familiar with the computerization that medicine is embracing.

“I’m analog, he’s digital,” Appleman said.

Grigg has a “soft” personality, and he’ll be just right, Appleman said.

Appleman’s own inspiration came from former Altoona Hospital pathologist Dr. William Kirsch, who said he had the potential to go further in his career than the assistant lab tech he was under Kirsch.

“He was my inspiration,” Appleman said.

Corso echoed that, but tagged Appleman with the label.

Appleman may accept his limitations, but presented with a hypothetical – would he have preferred to be born without his disability – he said yes, readily.

“I like to dance,” he said.

He has danced – even “full-tilt boogie” at times.

But it’s not the same when you have CP.

Still, he likes to watch others have that untrammeled fun.

For the retirement party, at the Bavarian Hall, he plans to tell those in attendance that he expects to see “shoe marks on the dance floor.”

So many and so bold that the janitor next day will need to run the buffer twice.