A Passionate Woman with a Soft Spot for the Elderly: A Tale of a Dedicated Community Leader

I first met Elizabeth at Nelly Berman School Classical Music Institute (NBS for short) in Haverford, Pennsylvania as classical music moms.  She was a natural leader at board of director meetings and various school events and people looked to her for sound and sensible advice.  When deciding on a location for the photo shoot and interview for Project: Do What You Love, she immediately said NBS.  So that’s what we did.  We met at our beloved music school.  It was a late Sunday cloudy yet pleasant afternoon.

Dr Elizabeth Wang-Hsu at NBS’s lobby

Hazel:  Thank you for agreeing to be my subject, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth:  My pleasure, Hazel.

Hazel:  I am glad you suggested NBS as I know this is one of the places where your heart lies.  Tell me how your family came here in the first place.

Elizabeth:  My daughter’s friend Alex from her kindergarten attended NBS.  He was so good at the piano.  My daughter started the piano also and I was waiting for her to play classical pieces by composers like Chopin, Bach but she would only play popular music like theme songs from Harry Potter, etc.  Finally, I approached her teacher and asked when she would play Chopin.  Her teacher’s answer was, “I don’t teach that kind of stuff.”

Hazel:  Oh no!  But, I’m glad you asked.  Is that when you switched?

Elizabeth:  Not immediately.  I have to admit, I was a bit afraid of taking my kid to a Russian teacher.

Hazel:  Why is that?

Elizabeth:  I thought a Russian teacher might be super strict.  As a kid, I got hit on my knuckles by a Chinese teacher when I took piano lessons and it really traumatized me.  I just didn’t want my daughter to have the same experience.  Alex’s mom Helen did say the teachers were really nice at NBS but even still I was skeptical. 

Hazel:  I can relate.  Some of my teachers in Korea used acrylic rulers to hit us on the hands when we made mistakes.  Those were so painful! 

Elizabeth:  That is really too bad!  Anyway, we decided to attend a memorial concert NBS hosted for one of its students who was a violin prodigy and had tragically died of meningitis.  I had a chance to see performances by many NBS faculty and students and was so impressed by them.  I even approached Nelly Berman, then owner and piano teacher, after the concert to speak with her.

Elizabeth at NBS’s front garden

Hazel:  I never had the privilege of meeting her.  What was she like?

Elizabeth:  She was so down to earth and enthusiastic.  Our deep connection was almost immediate.  She saw that I had tears in my eyes from the concert.  She said, “You are so passionate!  I would love to teach your daughter!”  So we brought my daughter Sharon in for an audition with Nelly soon after.  After listening, Nelly said, “We don’t teach the kind of music you played for me here.  You have passion in your music but your fingers and techniques are all wrong though.”

Hazel:  (laughs) No sugar coating, huh?  How old was Sharon at the time?

Elizabeth:  This was 2008 and Sharon was 8 at the time. 

Hazel:  Then, what happened?

Elizabeth:  Nelly assigned two teachers for Sharon: Maxim Mogilevsky to develop her musicality and artistry and Elena Berman, Nelly’s daughter who was also a piano teacher at the school, to work on her techniques. 

Maxim came from a prestigious Russian musician family.  His parents were both famous pianists with his maternal grandparents being prominent figures in Saint Petersburg Conservatory and his father a renowned pianist who won the Queen Elisabeth Competition* when he was 18.  Maxim’s brother Alexander, also a pianist, was the winner of International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians.  Alexander, whenever he was in town, would give masterclasses to Sharon. 

*Note: Queen Elisabeth Competition is one of the three international piano competitions that are regarded as the most prestigious.  The other two are Tchaikovsky International Competition and International Chopin Piano Competition.

Hazel:  Wow, that’s amazing.  What an accomplished family!  Did Maxim teach Sharon for a long time?

Elizabeth:  Actually, he had to tour and perform all over the world, then he took a post in China at a conservatory so his mother Olga stepped in to be Sharon’s main teacher after about 1.5 years.  Olga taught Sharon all the way until this summer right before she went off to Cornell University. Sharon will still take piano lessons from Olga if she comes home from college.

Hazel:  Congratulations again for Sharon attending Cornell.  That’s such a big achievement!  So how did you become the president of the board at NBS?

Elizabeth:  Thank you!  We are so proud of her!  In 2013, Nelly Berman’s health started to decline.  She started to transition ownership and administrative responsibilities to her daughter Elena Berman.  One day, Nelly pulled me aside and thanked me for my work for the school.  She also asked me to continue helping the school.  I gave her my word that I would.  In 2014, my friend Helen who was the president of the board at the time, took up a job that sent her away a lot on business trips.  And NBS needed a lot of help in organizing a big gala concert which I took the lead on.  After the event, Elena asked me to be the new president and I’ve served since then.  Sadly, Nelly passed away in August of 2015.  I was a part of her intimate Jewish funeral ritual.  Nelly was family to me.

Hazel:  What is your vision for NBS?

Elizabeth:  I love classical music and want the school to inspire more young students to learn classical music.  I’m hoping to promote the school to become a local icon of classical music.  The school has won a lot prestigious awards but is not as widely recognized as it should be.  I want to change this. 

Hazel:  How?

Elizabeth:  I think we need more fundraising events and more community-based concerts.

Hazel:  Yes, more exposure to the community would be good.  Now let’s talk about your career in physical therapy.  How did you decide in getting into that?

Elizabeth:  My father was a surgeon in Taiwan, and his father and grandfather were both physicians back in China.  My dad was a role model for me as he was an orthopedic surgeon who was the head of the military hospital in Taiwan.  He was a colonel.  I thought about following his footsteps and becoming a surgeon also but my dad advised me against it.  He said it would consume too much of my life and not enough of me would be available for my family.  But I liked the idea of helping and treating people so I chose rehabilitation medicine and even got my PhD in it.

Hazel:  What was your PhD dissertation topic?

Elizabeth:  My research was on fall prevention among the elderly.

Hazel:  That’s such an important topic!  I heard that if a senior has a hip fracture, that could be the start of their physical decline and even death.  Is this true?

Elizabeth:  Yes.  For those who are 65 or older, if they get a hip fracture, 25% of them die within a year.  So fall prevention is very crucial and has become a passion of mine.  I saw the effect of a fall on seniors first-hand when I was working full-time at a retirement community center while working on my dissertation.  My dissertation took 6 years to complete! 

Hazel:  That seems like a lot of juggling.  It must have been so tough!

Elizabeth:  Yes, it was super difficult.  It took total of 9 years to get my PhD because after I was done with coursework in 3 years, I gave birth to my son.  Not too long after that, I nearly died one time because my body just started to fail, and the doctors couldn’t identify what was wrong.  I was hospitalized for a while and finally recovered after a long break from it all.  Perhaps, I was too stressed out.  Anyway, I still really loved my job and working toward my PhD.  I had 65 subjects for my dissertation study and they were all eager volunteers from the senior community center I worked at.  Everyone loved me there and wanted to help me complete my PhD. 

Hazel:  It seems like you have a special place in your heart for the elderly. 

Elizabeth:  I truly do.  That’s why it was tough for me toward the end of my 6 years at the senior center.  I witnessed so many of my friends deteriorating, and I attended too many funerals.  I then was recruited by University of Pennsylvania’s (Penn) Home Health Hospice entity.  I never stopped being an advocate for the seniors.  I’m part of the Fall Committee at Penn Medicine.  I am the Chair of Geriatric Special Interest Group at Penn Home Health. I have been a research liaison of Balance and Fall Special Interest Group for Academy of Geriatric Physical Therapy (AGPT of APTA) since 2016.

Hazel:  What do you enjoy the most about being a physical therapist?

Elizabeth:  I just love the interactions with my patients.  Just before meeting you, I had to go see a patient at her home in Upper Darby.  At the end of my visit she said I had a beautiful soul.  That kind of comment makes me feel so warm and validated inside.

Elizabeth and I went to a local restaurant to celebrate her birthday that just passed. It was a nice meal and the company even more pleasant!

Thank you, Dr. Elizabeth Wang-Hsu, for sharing your life story and passions.  The world is a brighter place because of people like you.  Thank you for your service and dedication!

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