Physical therapy students, alums giving back to community

For five summers now, kids have been teaching UT Southwestern physical therapy students -- taking up where professors and instructors have left off.

At Camp John Marc, a Meridian, Texas, camp for children with disabilities, youngsters with muscular dystrophy have built a special relationship with the physical therapy program at UT Southwestern Allied Health Sciences School.

Under a program implemented in 2000 by Patricia Smith, associate professor of physical therapy, and Dr. Ross Querry, assistant professor of physical therapy, with the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), second-year PT students attend the camp as counselors during the week for children with muscular dystrophy as part of a "service-learning experience."

The students give back to the community by using the knowledge and skills they have learned and practiced in the academic environment. And the students learn from their young campers.

Data collected by the class of 2004 for an upcoming journal article indicate the service-learning experience has "surpassed" students' expectations and provided rewards not expected by them prior to attending camp. For example, student participants said their anxiety about working with special populations prior to camp were assuaged and the experience boosted their professional and personal confidence.

The program offers an opportunity for students to learn skills -- problem solving, conflict resolution and working outside their individual comfort zones -- they will need professionally when dealing with patients, Ms. Smith and Dr. Querry said.

The program includes preparatory coursework. MDA representatives visit to tell students about their upcoming experience, and clinical pathology lectures focus on neuromuscular diseases. During camp students maintain journals and afterward they dissect lessons learned in their Psychology of Disability and Health-Care Delivery classes. They also fill out a post-camp questionnaire that is being used to construct a picture of the camp's effect on learning.

Ms. Smith and Dr. Querry said they believe this model of "service learning" could be implemented across the allied health sciences school curriculum because it offers real-world experience and also provides students with a classroom opportunity to reflect on that experience.

Some former UT Southwestern PT students return again and again to the camp. Class of 2003 PT graduates Hayley Warner, Leslie Nelson and Matt McCoy all have gone to camp for four years and were on hand for the 2005 session, June 13-17, in addition to 36 current PT students.

Ms. Warner, who works at Baylor University Medical Center, described the muscular dystrophy children at Camp John Marc as "really inspiring." Many of the MDA week campers are in motorized wheelchairs, as the progressive disease robs them of the ability to use their limbs. Many have never been away from home and may never have seen another person with a neuromuscular disease, she said.

The hardest part of camp is the last day, Ms. Warner said, when the children have boarded their buses and the volunteers and staff wave goodbye. "That was the point that most of us É we kind of break down a little bit," she said.

She plans to keep coming back. "I can't see a year when I don't try to help out at some point."

Ms. Nelson spent this past camp on the medical staff as a physical therapist, which she describes as "a whole new spin to things for me." She also works with children with neuromuscular diseases at her job at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital.

One of the most "eye-opening" moments at camp for Ms. Nelson is the annual dance. "You think about dancing on two feet, and you see kids in their wheelchairs just doing as much as you or I would do," she said. "It's just really fun to watch."

Ms. Nelson said once the children are at camp, "You don't see the wheelchairs, you don't see any of the braces. It's all just normal stuff.

"You look at life in a different perspective. These kids teach you about living for the day and just enjoying life."

Mr. McCoy, who is employed at Physical Therapy of Flower Mound, works with 12- to 14-year-old boys and said the experience is "about doing things" that the kids don't have access to at home, like swimming. Mr. McCoy also noted his group is "still worried about the girls," and they "still care about the dance."

The three former students said they receive much more from camp than they give.

Mr. McCoy said, "Camp is not focused on me. It gives me a lot of encouragement to see kids love life" despite their condition. "I get a lot of inspiration."

And Ms. Warner said, "It's the best week of the year for me."