Life lessons taught by patients

DPT students Michelle Jeske (left) and Allison Van Oort (right) challenge the balance of Dudley Mori (center).
DPT students Michelle Jeske (left) and Allison Van Oort (right) challenge the balance of Dudley Mori (center).

March in Iowa this year consisted of snowy weather and icy sidewalks. Many students were looking forward to a week away from classes during spring break, perhaps vacationing south or visiting friends or family. I managed to do the opposite by staying in Iowa and participating in an elective course, stroke camp, offered at DMU. Come to find out, it was the best spring break adventure during my lifetime of education. It was fulfilling to put into practice the knowledge I have obtained in the classroom as a future doctor of physical therapy.

Stroke camp was led by Associate Professor Kathy Mercuris, P.T., D.H.S., C/NDT, CEEAA, with 14 second-year doctor of physical therapy (DPT) students, physical therapy and occupational therapy faculty and clinicians, and seven patient volunteers post-stroke. The five-day camp provided a hands-on learning experience for students while helping  patients achieve functional improvements.

Standardized testing assessing gait, balance and function was completed at the beginning and end of the camp. Physical therapy interventions were completed for two hours on Monday following the pre-testing and three and half to four hours each day Tuesday through Thursday. These interventions, directed by the students and supervised by the licensed therapists, focused on improving gait, balance, strength, and hand and leg function. Students tailored interventions daily to address the needs and goals of each patient.

Each day started and ended with group activities led by the students, which provided a way for students and patients to connect on a more personal level. Students honed in on the emotional component of stroke during their opening activities by showing inspiring videos of individuals who had overcome similar hardships with courage and persistence. The day ended with games including balloon volleyball, putt-putt golf and bean bag toss.

“Just because I can’t do it today, doesn’t mean I can’t do it tomorrow,” stated one patient. This was proven to be true: By the end of the camp, many of the patients were able to move their hands or arms in ways they had not since their stroke. It was rewarding to see the patients’ determination as they courageously performed the challenges that students presented to them.

“A little hard work never hurt anyone” was a comment overheard from another patient.

Their hard work paid off as post-test data indicated astonishing improvements. They proved one patient’s quote of “old habits can be broken.” All seven patients improved in at least two of seven objectively measured categories. One patient was able to walk over 800 feet farther, unassisted, in the six-minute walk test. Another patient deducted 14 seconds in the timed “up and go” test.

From my patients, I learned that as long as I keep trying, I will never fail.

One of my peers said it best during the closing ceremony as he was speaking to the patients: “If you learned even half as much from us as we did from you this week, it was a huge success.” I learned just as much about being a better person as I did about effective treatment interventions. From my patients, I learned that every day is beautiful, to celebrate the small goals, and as long as I keep trying, I will never fail. I watched the determination of the patients as they performed every last effort to complete an exercise to fatigue or challenge their minds to connect to a body part that was experiencing diminished sensation or motor control secondary to their stroke.  I witnessed the love of caregivers as they gave of themselves wholeheartedly. Finally, I learned that no matter where you are in your endeavors, there is always room for improvement. This was made evident by patients who were over five years following their stroke and still making significant improvements through their persistence, courage and mindful efforts.

Patients are filled with life lessons. I am grateful for my quest toward a career that is just as rewarding for my patients as it is for me.

Shellina Herink earned her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and health at Iowa State University and worked at Cyclone Sports Medicine in Ames, IA, before enrolling in DMU’s doctor of physical therapy program. She is from Clutier, IA.

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