Non-traditional students find their calling in physical therapy

Jeffrey Kinsella-Shaw with patient
UConn DPT Program Director, Dr. Jeffrey Kinsella-Shaw helps a patient to maximize his arm and hand movement.

Physical therapy is a personal kind of work. Physical therapists (PTs) use hands-on techniques, exercises, stretches and equipment to help patients improve or restore their mobility and reduce or manage pain caused by injury, illness and chronic conditions. PTs can treat people of all ages and backgrounds in a number of settings, including hospitals, care facilities and medical offices. They often spend more time working directly with patients than many other medical professionals. The one-on-one nature and proximity of interactions means that PTs need to foster communication and trust to ensure the best health outcomes for their patients.

In the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Program in the Department of Kinesiology, clinical education is paramount. Supervised rotations expose students to different work settings and patient conditions. This helps students integrate and expand knowledge learned in the classroom. PTs also draw from their own experiences to build relationships with a diverse patient population. Many students in UConn’s DPT Program have valuable perspectives from life and work that are helping them hone their skills as they pursue a career in rehabilitative care.

A number of non-traditional students have found a home in UConn’s DPT Program. Returning to school after time spent starting families and following other career paths, these future practitioners have discovered a passion for helping others strengthen their physical abilities.

“Since inception, the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program has drawn students from diverse military and civilian careers including logistics, teaching, journalism, finance, pharmaceutical sales and the insurance industry,” says Professor Craig Denegar, former Director of the DPT Program. “These students bring a passion for healthcare delivery, maturity and a wealth of life experiences that enrich the learning environment and preparation of doctors of practice.”

PTs are in high demand due to needs of aging baby boomers and the rising incidence of diabetes and obesity, chronic conditions in which many suffer from a myriad of mobility issues. Further inspired by a strong job outlook, these students are looking forward to embarking in a new direction and reflecting on what brought them to UConn.

Former sailor aims to help wounded service members and veterans

Matt MacDonald
Matthew MacDonald

Matthew McDonald started college at Keene State College in New Hampshire after high school. After a year of classes, he had not found a major that interested him. Concerned about the mounting costs of his education, he left school and took a hotel maintenance job. He worked there for several years before accepting that he did not feel fulfilled nor was he making enough to support himself.

“I worked hard and I received positive evaluations, but I realized making eleven dollars an hour and getting twenty-five cent raises every year wasn’t going to cut it,” says McDonald. “My grandfather had served in the army and my dad suggested the navy might be an option to learn a trade.”

McDonald spent the next four years in the navy, considering it for a career until he met his wife, another enlistee. They realized continuing to serve would make it difficult to spend time together.

McDonald completed his navy service and remained in San Diego, where he had been stationed. Following a passion for fitness, he used the the GI Bill to enroll at San Diego State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology. After deciding to learn more about injury rehabilitation and wishing to return to the East Coast, he applied to the UConn DPT Program.

“I received a call from [Associate Professor and DPT Director] Jeffrey Kinsella-Shaw,” says McDonald. “He explained the program and its benefits to me. None of the other places I applied to reached out like that. We talked about the move and concerns I had. He gave me all kinds of resources and put me in touch with [Assistant Professor] Justin LaFerrier, who was a former marine. [Program assistant] Katrease Sharavolli helped me find housing. The interactions I had made me feel wanted here and the department did everything it could to make the transition a positive one.”

McDonald is now in his second year and starting clinical rounds. He has an idea of what direction he would like to go as a physical therapist, but he has not ruled any options out.

“Justin talked to me about his time working at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center,” says McDonald. “I’d be interested in working in the outpatient amputee clinic there. It would be a great opportunity to give back. I’m going to wait to have more firsthand experience during my clinical rotations and see what feels right.”

Finding a work-life balance

Deborah Taylor
Deborah Taylor

Deborah Taylor says that she has always considered herself a non-traditional student. She completed her undergraduate studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Shen then moved to Seattle, where she earned her master’s in nutrition, worked as a registered dietitian and had her first child.

“We moved when my husband was accepted to veterinary school at Tuft’s University in Massachusetts,” says Taylor. “I was working as a dog trainer. We had another child and bought a house in Sturbridge, MA. I wanted to stay in the medical field, but I needed to find a job that had more opportunities and where I would have flexibility now that I had a bigger family.”

Taylor looked at the closest schools, including the University of Hartford and the University of Massachusetts, before deciding UConn would work best for her and her family. She began to complete the pre-requisites, taking courses at Springfield Technical Community College, and refreshing her knowledge of anatomy and physiology, having taken the class a decade earlier.

“I met with Professor Denegar to go over my pre-reqs because my credits didn’t exactly match the stated expectations for the program. We worked it all out and he encouraged me to apply. I got in and now I’m set to graduate this coming May.”

Taylor, like MacDonald, is not sure where she would like to practice as a PT, but she is open to options based on her experiences in clinical rotations. Having worked at the Parkway Pavilion Health and Rehabilitation Center in Enfield, Taylor feels a rehabilitation facility may be the best fit for her. She is thankful the program worked with her to keep her clinical education close to home.

“This program is difficult in terms of balancing family, rotations, studying and commuting,” says Taylor. “It is challenging, but the faculty members and my classmates are supportive.”

Inspired by exercise science

Haunz Murdoch
Haunz Murdoch

Haunz Murdoch is another DPT student who made the journey east to Connecticut. A native of the Northwest, Murdoch has moved around and explored many different vocations. He did not feel college was the right decision following high school and instead spent two years volunteering as a missionary in Brazil for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Following his mission, Murdoch studied at Brigham Young University for a year and a half before leaving to pursue employment. He took jobs in construction, retail and schools, working as a paraprofessional and then later as a bilingual tutor, having learned Portuguese in Brazil and Spanish in college. He went to Wyoming, where he worked with at-risk youth on a ranch with no running water and only open fires for cooking.

“Working on the ranch and in the school system made me realize the jobs I enjoyed involved small groups or one-on-one interaction, “says Murdoch. “I liked that feeling of contributing positively to someone’s quality of life.”

Reconnecting with family in the area, Murdoch went back to school at Brigham Young University – Idaho.

“I found exercise science,” says Murdoch. “I had an anatomy and physiology professor who inspired me. I wanted to learn how the body worked and what goes on at the cellular level. The degree had a great sampling of courses. Being able to study so many different things, including physics, chemistry and biology, kept me engaged.”

During his undergraduate studies, Murdoch got married. After he graduated, his wife became pregnant. Shortly afterwards, they separated and she moved home to Connecticut.

“I came to Connecticut when our baby was born and that brought us back together,” says Murdoch.

Murdoch found work as a bilingual tutor in East Hartford, eventually becoming the English as a Second Language program coordinator for the school district. After a few years, his wife encouraged him to go back to school.

“She was also thinking about going back to school, but suggested I go first in order to be settled into a more stable career,” says Murdoch. “I thought about what would be best for my family and what I’d like to study, and physical therapy felt like the best option.”

With the potential for employment anywhere in the country, Murdoch researched different programs and made a list of necessary pre-requisites. While working full-time, he took courses at various Connecticut community colleges, including Manchester, Tunxis and Naugatuck. He applied to UConn, met with Denegar for a meeting and was accepted into the program.

“I knew I was making a big commitment of time that might take away from other responsibilities,” says Murdoch.

“I’ve learned a lot about the different paths people’s lives take, different kinds of people and cultures. It’s made me see how common we all are and how to empathize and understand people. All these experiences led me to physical therapy and I think they will prove useful when I start in clinical rounds next year,” says Murdoch.

Work study reveals a new career

Sarah Deacon
Sarah Deacon

Sarah Deacon’s story too begins on the West Coast. As a high school student in Washington State, Deacon was on track to be the first in her family to earn a college degree. She was enrolled in a program called Running Start, which gives students the opportunity to take classes at the state’s community and technical colleges and earn high school and college credits. While taking a community college course, Deacon met her future husband.

“I didn’t finish high school,” says Deacon. “We got married and my husband moved with his family to California and was working towards acceptance at UC Berkeley on a community college pathway. I left school and moved to California to be with him. After a few different jobs, I started working for a solar energy company.

Deacon began at Sun Light & Power as a receptionist, but soon took on leadership duties, working with contractors and public utilities to coordinate energy rebate programs. When the guidelines for implementing the Million Solar Roofs Initiative were being written, Deacon participated in discussions with the head of the company and solar rebate administrators, offering her insight into how programs might affect solar contractors.

“I contributed what I could to those discussions and I helped bridge a knowledge gap between the bigger companies and smaller contractors,” says Deacon. “The company I worked for wanted to ensure the legislation would lead to more solar energy use and be fair for companies of all sizes. I was very sad when I had to leave that job.”

When Deacon’s husband was accepted to graduate school at the University of Colorado Boulder [CU Boulder], they moved again. Her experience at the solar company inspired Deacon to pursue a growing interest in climate change and its effects on human health. While she worked, Deacon had never stopped studying. She received her GED and continued to take community college courses, earning more than 150 credits.

Deacon became a molecular biology major at CU Boulder and aimed to do vaccine research. She interviewed for a work study in pathobiology only to find the position already filled, so advisors suggested sports medicine as an alternative.

“That was when I learned about physical therapy and it was life changing,” says Deacon. “I realized I was headed towards the wrong career and decided medical school was a better choice for me.”

An internship with athletic trainers and an experience volunteering working with Division 1 athletes convinced Deacon she was following the right path.

“These athletes had come from all over the world,” says Deacon. “They were far from home, and I realized the importance in the healing process of making a space for someone and letting them feel heard. The tennis team started calling me ‘Healing Hands.’”

“At the same time, I was volunteering in an emergency department at a hospital. A patient came in who had been seriously injured riding a bicycle. He was combative and scared and no one knew anything about what had happened to him. I saw a respiratory nurse speaking with him, and she placed her hand on his wrist. I noticed how he was much more relaxed afterwards. I asked to sit with him that day so he wouldn’t wake up alone. I held his hand, looked in his face, called him by his name, told him he was safe and that I understood how uncomfortable he was, but that he was going to be okay and I was going to be there. I knew I was someone who needed to be working directly with patients,” says Deacon.

While Deacon considered taking the Medical College Admission Test [MCAT], her husband completed his Ph.D. and accepted a postdoctoral position at Yale University. This meant another move.

Deacon continued to work in medical-related fields, but these experiences made her once again consider a career in PT.

“I missed working with patients,” says Deacon. “I learned how unique PT is in the time you get with patients. PTs support a patient’s self-efficacy and they can talk to them about other aspects of health, including nutrition, sleep and safe relationships. It’s an opportunity for health promotion and wellness.”

When it was likely her husband would accept a permanent position at Yale, Deacon began to look into DPT programs in the area. She called UConn to find out more information about their program and Sharavolli suggested she visit the Storrs campus.

“Katrease spent a whole afternoon with me,” says Deacon. “I wanted to know about the opportunities for service and public outreach, and learned about the many partnerships the department has, including the migrant farm clinics. I learned about [Assistant Professor in Residence] Jon Rizzo’s education research. Katrease said to me, ‘I think you found a home here,’ and she was right. It’s an incredibly supportive program.”

Deacon is focusing her clinical learning on pelvic conditions. While this is not a part of the general curriculum, the department has supported her work to be a clinician in the field. They helped her find clinical rotations that put her in contact with patients that can benefit from pelvic physical therapy.

Deacon is the President-Elect of the American Physical Therapy Association Section on Women’s Health Student Special Interest Group. The group is the national professional organization for specialists in pelvic health physical therapy for people of all genders and children, but it started as a field in women’s health.

“Treating pelvic issues can be a sensitive topic. It deals with bowel and bladder issues and pain during intercourse. I want to make people feel comfortable and help them with their daily function. This kind of PT work can have a profound effect on people’s lives. For me, being a PT is all about making a safe place for people to know they’re being taken care of and giving them room to do their own work and facilitate healing,” says Deacon.

For more information on UConn’s DPT Program:

By: Jason M. Sheldon