How do you make a page teeming with complex medical terms come to life? Forge solid connections with local nonprofits and key community members to offer rewarding volunteer opportunities so your students receive hands-on practice and learn how to build rapport with participants.
Volunteers who come to the university are often receiving therapy off campus; they may have a spinal injury, cerebral palsy, or Down syndrome. They also want to give back to the professions that have benefited them. They do this by allowing students to try out their new skills in a setting where it’s safe to be nervous, ask questions, get it wrong, then get it right. “They’re teaching the students as much as the students are helping them,” shares Dr. Kristen Barta, a DPT faculty member on the Austin campus.
By involving volunteers in their courses, faculty are helping to enhance students’ feelings of empathy and responsibility, and foster their professional identities. “Patient contacts have always been an integral part of undergraduate medical education,” a 2008 article in Simulation in Healthcare corroborates. “Patient contacts … help students build integrated skills for clinical reasoning, communication, history taking, and physical examination.”
Working directly with participants while under the watchful eye of a clinical instructor “really prepares the students and gives them so much more confidence,” says Anna Edwards, a faculty member who pioneered the effort to create hands-on labs in 2010 by beginning the Patient Oriented Integrated Neurological Treatment (POINT) Labs on the San Marcos campus.
Here, we share two examples of these programs to illustrate the power of these immersive experiences.
A Shock to the System
Daniel Curtis lay face down in the pool. The only thing he could feel was the cool air on the top of his head. He couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. His girlfriend, who was a nurse in an intensive care unit, rushed outside and performed CPR.
He was 29, and he’d sustained a spinal cord injury to his neck that left him a quadriplegic with some function in his right leg and trunk.
It’s a story he tells to DPT students in Dr. Kristen Barta’s classroom in Austin. During his adult POINT Lab sessions there, he works with students on locomotive training and patterning of the legs. “The best therapy I’ve gotten has been at those neuro POINT labs,” he shares. “It’s an amazing resource.”
Participants like Curtis provide information to students and guide them through everything from evaluation to interventions, reassessment, discharge planning, and home exercises over the course of four visits and about five weeks, Barta says. “Neurology is such an abstract world when you read about it in a textbook,” she explains. “We try to role play as best we can before this lab, but there’s nothing like interacting with an individual who has had a stroke or brain injury.”
Madison McLeod, a student in Barta’s POINT Lab, worked with a participant who’d had a stroke five years earlier. “We got his background information and set goals,” she says. “We were able to progress with treatment. We worked on everything. By the end, we reevaluated him and he’d improved. Each session, he would be like, ‘I never thought I’d be walking like this or standing straight up on my own two feet.’ We were educating him and he was educating us.”
A complementary POINT Lab that focuses on pediatrics is operated by Megan Flores, also an instructor in the DPT program in Austin. One frequent participant is a 15-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who is non-verbal and has hemiplegia. “Some students haven’t worked with a neurologically involved patient before and it’s intimidating,” she says. “This participant is so engaging. He will grab you to play. By the end, my students are having more fun than he is. They realize it doesn’t matter that he can’t talk to them; he’s communicated everything through gestures.”
Dalin Hansen’s first assignment was to examine a young man with a traumatic brain injury with a team of other students. “When he got there, he was lower functioning than we could have predicted. It made us realize that the faculty trust us. That gave us confidence,” he says. “It really pushed us to learn.” “At first, the students are nervous, wide-eyed,” Barta says. “By week four, they’re comfortable and coming up with great interventions. Their skills come together in the lab.”
The 5-week-old girl cried and cried, inconsolable from pain. She’d been exposed to drugs in utero. Her foster parent, Angela Zuffinetti, brought her to Straight From the Heart, a nonprofit for foster families, and signed her up for a playgroup run by Dr. Erin Schwier and Dr. Becki Cohill, OT faculty members on the San Marcos campus. Because a multidisciplinary approach is important for participants and students, they also enrolled her in Anna Edward’s physical therapy POINT Lab.
Straight From the Heart hosts about 20 OT students nine times a year to run developmental playgroups for kids who are preschool-age and younger. The groups focus on play, of course, but with a purpose—there are stations for gross motor skills, fine motor skills, sensory skills, and tactile development. There’s also an area designated just for babies.
Her foster child was “extremely stiff” when she first began, says Zuffinetti, a board member at the nonprofit. “The students did a lot of stretching and massage, and worked on feeding skills.” Now the child is almost 2 years old and “has exceeded all of her developmental milestones,” Zuffinetti says. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Children in the foster care system often don’t get as much access to early invention as other kids, because of the legal situations they are involved in, Schwier says. “They’re all at risk for delays,” she says. By partnering with Straight From the Heart, “we can reach this underserved population and provide real services while giving students authentic opportunities to practice their therapeutic skills,” she continues. “They can develop much more self-efficacy and confidence in their therapeutic skills and their ability to interact while applying what they’ve learned from the course material.”
Students, like Samantha Adair, do initial evaluations of the children, provide treatment through the playgroup, and then give a full discharge plan, all while under the direct supervision of the faculty. “We knew we might not make miracles happen during our short time working with this organization,” she says. “But if we could give the parents and children just one intervention to make their lives easier—whether it be a certain technique, exercise, positional recommendation, or a reference to a resource—then we have done our jobs.”
When the students first arrive, “they feel like they don’t know anything,” Schwier says. “After four weeks, they realize how much they know and how they’re able to synthesize their learning.”
Dr. Becki Cohill, an OT faculty member who leads the playgroup program with Schwier adds, “They get a lot of good experience while working with kids of all ages, with all kinds of issues. The students jump in, and we offer a lot of support to ensure everything goes smoothly.”
The transformation in the students is incredible, Schwier says. “They start out as students and by the end they are therapists,” she says. “It’s tremendous for everyone.”