New apartment at UPMC geared to help people with disabilities regain independence

PITTSBURGH — Milonee Hawkins was working at the post office when suddenly her arms went numb in 2022. After several tests, doctors diagnosed the 24-year-old with a rare aggressive form of multiple sclerosis. At one point, she couldn’t walk. Then she lost sight completely in one eye.

“I was so focused on the past and that isn’t healthy,” Hawkins said. “So I had to focus on tomorrow and what can I do tomorrow to get better.”

That took her to the life skills apartment inside the UPMC Mercy Pavilion. With a great view of the city and the Monongahela River, it looks like a regular apartment, but this space is geared to help people like Milonee learn skills to regain their independence.

“When your vision changes, you may need more lighting, you might need higher contrast, you may need a difference mechanism to be more adaptive,” said UPMC Low Vision Team Leader Holly Stants. “We get to adapt the microwave, we get to adapt the oven and the stove so they actually have a positive experience because they’re going through a whole grief process.”

Something as simple as laying a dark mat on a white countertop could be a game changer, especially for someone like Milonee, who loves to cook. Light-colored utensils on a light countertop can be hard to see.

“(This apartment) has helped me with everything. Like what I’ve learned in the kitchen here, I’ve taken and put into use at my house,” Hawkins said.

Still, the skills learned go much further and can be used outside of the home as well.

“It’s also about how do we make it out in society. How do I do community mobility? How do I get back into going to the theater? How do I get back into the things that are meaningful to me? How do I go to the grocery store so they can buy food for my family or myself, and how do I do that without having to ask for too much help,” Stants said.

Hawkins said what she has learned in the apartment has made all the difference, from her most depressed moments until today.

“I’m very sad about not being able to see out of one of my eyes, but I have to work with what I got and I’m going to keep pushing to get to places I want to go and do the things I was doing before,” Hawkins said.

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