Meet alumna Leigh Kaplan

Leigh Kaplan
Leigh Kaplan participates in the multiple sclerosis Climb to the Top and captains a team.

Climbing to the top of a class or career is never easy. For Leigh Kaplan, a multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis came when she was a physical therapy (PT) graduate student and made the climb more challenging. Her UConn classmates rallied around her. Now, some of them participate with Kaplan in an MS fundraising event, “Climb to the Top” in New York City where the team raised $44,080 this year to become the Top Team alongside Kaplan as the Top Participant.

What was your major in the College? When did you graduate? With what degree? I received my doctorate in Physical Therapy (DPT) from UConn in 2014. My undergraduate degree was in International Studies from Trinity College in 2010.

What class was most useful to you? I truly believe I’m a product of everything I learned at UConn. However, there are a few courses that stood out and shaped my experience as a graduate student. Laurie Devaney, a clinical instructor in kinesiology, taught orthopedic focused courses, specifically a manual therapy intensive course and a therapeutic exercise course. Both of these classes gave me confidence in my physical abilities and creative tools to use as a clinician. In addition, I learned a lot about workplace and patient care communication from Department of Kinesiology Assistant Professor in Residence Deborah Bubela. Both of these professors stood out because their teaching methodologies were creative, interesting and ultimately very useful in the professional world. Their guidance, along with all my professors at UConn, provided key knowledge and instruments that have allowed me to succeed as a physical therapist.

Tell us some of your fond memories of UConn. My time at UConn was among the best and worst times of my life. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in my third and final year. It was like a plot from a movie. We were learning about neurologic diseases in class while simultaneously I was being diagnosed with one. My class of 17 went from being close friends to people who will be in my life forever. They are truly a special group of individuals.

A couple of fond memories outside of this experience involved heading to TEDS Restaurant and Bar to unwind after big exams or going to the Dairy Bar for some ice cream on a summer day.

Please describe your current job. I am an acute care physical therapist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. I typically work with patients on either the orthopedic or cardiac units. Some examples of these patient populations would be open heart surgeries, spinal procedures, total joint operations, orthopedic fractures or any acute cardiovascular event. As clinicians, we work with the medical teams to optimize patient’s functional mobility and ensure they are discharged safely and appropriately.

Are you doing what you imagined you would be doing at this point in your life? Yes and no. I would say “yes” because I planned to be a physical therapist after successfully graduating from UConn. My mentality in life has always been that reaction is more indicative of your trajectory in life than circumstance. So, while I didn’t “imagine” I would be diagnosed with MS as I was finishing my degree, I truly think I’m a better clinician and person for it.

I pursued PT because I felt it suited my drive to help people and my compassion towards those in need. I’ve been given a unique opportunity to be a clinician with personal experience as a patient, which has only deepened my level of empathy and commitment to help my own patients.

Leigh Kaplan collage
Kaplan with her team and the Climb to the Top stats.

Additionally, I am involved as an advocate for change on the young leadership board of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. One of my fundraising activities is the Climb to the Top event, which is best described as an indoor vertical 5K. Participants ascend 1,215 stairs (66 flights) to the Top of Rockefeller Center.

I’ve captained a team of around 50 individuals, comprised of both friends and family, for the last five years. This year, we were the Top Team raising an incredible $44,080, and I was the Top Participant individually raising $22,100. Cumulatively, my team has raised over 180K in the last five years. While my trajectory in life was certainly altered by MS, it’s given me a greater platform to impact positive change in the lives of others and a deeper sense of gratitude for the wonderful people climbing alongside me every day.

Do you have any advice for current students that will help them in the future? 1) Be a generalist and stay open-minded to different areas of PT. I have an athletic background, having played basketball most of my life. It may have been easy to assume I’d want to pursue outpatient orthopedics. However, I kept an open mind throughout all four of my clinical affiliations, and I think it allowed me to find an area of PT I am truly passionate about.

2) Always remember that at the heart of PT is helping others. This can be easy to forget both in the classroom and in the day-to-day workplace grind. We are given a gift in this career, which is our ability to make positive changes in another person’s life. It is a profession that really makes waking up and going to work every day worth it.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you? There is a symmetry to life, and I’m a believer that you end up where you are supposed to. I feel blessed to have been given a greater platform to impact change both in my personal and professional life. I am truly proud of where I’ve come from and where I am going.

By Patsy Evans