In her 35 years as a physical therapist and educator, Juanita Robel, P.T., taught hundreds of students, treated myriad patients, played key roles in revamping and updating curriculum, and served on committees at DMU and in her profession. The one thing she never did: coast.
“She never lost her passion to be her best and give her best to the University. That has influenced me as a professional and colleague,” says Tracy Porter, P.T.’94, D.P.T.’97, Ed.D., assistant professor and assistant director of clinical education in the doctor of physical therapy program. “She is fearless and loves a challenge.”
Switching to virtual education during the pandemic, for example: On Dec. 15, just one month before her Jan. 15 retirement as associate professor emeritus, Robel was a presenter in a faculty development session on using tools of technology to educate future health care providers during the pandemic. She joined DMU’s physical therapy program in 1989, the year before it graduated its very first class. Throughout her tenure, she considered curriculum development “really, really fun” and embraced the arduous preparations required for accreditation and reaccreditation.
“Our program is so far advanced because she is forward-thinking and had great ideas,” says Traci Bush, D.P.T.’95, OTR/L, D.H.S., associate professor who became director of the physical therapy program in 2005 in large part because of Robel’s encouragement. “She pushed a lot, and we’ve all benefitted from that – all DMU programs have.”
Robel gained her epic work ethic early. Growing up in St. Louis, she worked weekends and weekdays, from 5:30 a.m. until it was time for her to go to school, at Mayer’s Pastries, an iconic bakery owned by her parents, John and Maria Mayer. After earning her bachelor’s degree in physical therapy, she joined Younker Rehabilitation Center in Des Moines and began working with students there.
“I really enjoyed that,” she says. That led to her pursuing a master’s degree at Washington University, while she was also working full-time in clinical practice and teaching at Maryville College, a schedule she kept for three years. She took on new challenges as a medical/surgical supervisor at a large medical center in St. Louis, splitting her time between patient care and administrative duties. Amid all Robel’s various hats, she “will always want to be recognized first and foremost as a physical therapist,” Bush says.
“That’s what drew her to academia,” she adds. “She has a great love for the profession and a desire to make sure it’s in good hands. To do that, she wanted to teach.” In that role, she is unforgettable. When the physical therapy department congratulated her on her retirement on its Facebook page in January, numerous former students posted comments praising her for always asking her favorite question: Why?
“She always challenged us in our clinical reasoning and decision-making for choosing a specific treatment,” says Michelle Brown, P.T.’99, D.P.T., CCVT, who practices in the DMU Physical Therapy Clinic. “She could be intimidating, but she wanted us to think and be confident.”
Robel acknowledges her questioning style could be “off-putting,” especially to first-year students.
“They think that if they answer incorrectly, they’re going to be perceived as dumb, but that isn’t the case,” she says. “I wanted them to not just be rote-memorizers, but to understand the underlying pathophysiology and give me their rationale for treatment.”