This Is APTA: Senora Simpson, PT, DrPH
Senora Simpson, a clinician and educator, has been inspiring PTs for over half a century — first through her bravery as a PT struggling to pursue her career during segregation, and later as an influential educator, policy maker, and advocate for people with mental health and intellectual disabilities. She also was recognized with the Lucy Blair Service Award in 2008. Here is her story.
Senora Simpson, PT, DrPH, has been an active APTA member since 1957, and has lived in Washington, D.C., most of her life. A proud 1953 graduate of D.C.'s academically elite Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, Simpson originally wanted to be a pianist, until her mother persuaded her to pursue a more lucrative career in physical therapy.
At Boston University's then all-female Sargent College of Allied Health Professions (now Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Boston University), Simpson earned her bachelor's degree in physical therapy. She was one of two African American students in her class. Her professors included the late Margaret L. Moore, PT, EdD, and Helen K. Hickey, PT, MEd, who became mentors along the way.
According to Simpson, Moore and Hickey, who later served as members of the APTA Board of Directors, were "very protective" of her, because, as an African American woman, her "chances of success were slim." In fact, Hickey would not allow her to complete an affiliation at DC Children's Hospital because she feared that Simpson would be failed due to racial bigotry. Instead, she sent Simpson to Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Massachusetts — a fortuitous move, because there she learned the groundbreaking technique of spine and joint manipulation and became quite skilled at manual muscle testing while treating patients with polio.
"I Cured Polio!"
It also was Hickey who called on Simpson soon after graduation to fill a position in Brownsville, Texas, where there was a breakout of polio. Hickey had become affiliated with The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now known as the March of Dimes) and learned that physicians there were in need of PTs with superior manual muscle testing skills. It seemed like a natural fit, until the Texas hospital administrators learned that Simpson was African American. In a time when segregation was still in legal effect, the hospital gave up her valuable skills. In her 2003 APTA oral history, Simpson joked that when she heard the hospital "didn't need anybody" after all, she thought to herself, "I cured polio!"
From Hands-on Clinician to Testing New Models of Care
After a stint at Goldwater Memorial Hospital in New York City, part of the Rusk Institute of Physical Medicine, in 1959 Simpson moved back to D.C. to take a position as staff PT at D.C. General Hospital, beginning a more than 30-year career in government service. After nearly a decade at D.C. General, Simpson made the move from clinician to administrator, going on to develop the rehabilitation department at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, which served patients with mental illness.
In 1965, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare — precursor to the Department of Health and Human Services — began the Comprehensive Home Care Project, a demonstration project to see whether rehabilitation could be performed for older adults in their homes, which was a novel idea at the time. Until then, home health rehab outside the hospital setting was not an option. Simpson took on the role of overseeing this effort for the D.C. region, coordinating PTs, occupational therapists, and speech-language pathologists.
Policy and administration appealed to Simpson, leading her to earn a doctorate in public health from University of Southern California in 1978. "I think about physical therapy differently [from how a clinician does]," she says, "because I think about the broader picture, about health care provision in a community, in a state."
"I Have To Be Part of the Solution"
Simpson began to pursue her master's in public health at The Johns Hopkins University while working at Forest Haven, an institution for people with intellectual disabilities. Her experience there as the first nonphysician head of health services inspired her involvement in the movement for deinstitutionalization for people with intellectual disabilities.
Her ongoing interaction with regulators and legislators led her to get involved in developing the health policies that affected patients, first writing HHS regulations for early and periodic screening, diagnostic, and treatment and later working as director of regional operations at the Office of Human Development Services, which oversaw Head Start, children and youth services, and the Office on Aging.
After watching her grandson struggle with dyslexia, Simpson became an advocate for special education and continues to be active in community advocacy organizations. She also has served in leadership roles with District of Columbia ARC and the National Capital Area United Way.
Although she retired from the federal government and her 25-year evening private practice many years ago, Simpson is assistant professor at Howard University and previously taught at George Washington University. "Students and their interest in learning are keeping me alive!" she declares. "They are teaching me things. But I'm tough. I don't do extra credit. I don't do anything that won't result in a good clinician."
She also spent 15 years on the D.C. Board of Physical Therapy, including as chair. Throughout her career, Simpson has remained involved with the D.C. Chapter of APTA, at various times holding the offices of president, membership committee chair, secretary, and delegate. The chapter even named an annual award for her: the Senora Simpson Service Award.
Currently Simpson serves on the board of directors of Qlarant, a company that performs quality review for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and chairs Qlarant's Quality Solutions Committee.
#PTTransforms blog spoke with Senora Simpson to get her thoughts on the state of the profession, where we've been, and where we need to go.
#PTTransforms: You had some good mentors early in your career. What advice do you have for future or new PTs and PTAs seeking mentorship?
Simpson: Be true to yourself. Be sure about why you are going into this profession. If you don't want to do it for the long-term, get out now. You've got to want to do this work with all your heart and soul. I see some people going into the profession for the title or the money, and no true passion for helping people. You aren't going to get a mentor unless you are truly interested.
Some students may say, "I want you as a mentor," but really they just want to use my name. Helen Hickey called me because she remembered my skills in school. They needed someone who was skilled in manual muscle testing to help physicians. It wasn't because I asked her to be my mentor. She knew what they needed, and she knew what I could do.
#PTTransforms: You have said that "there is still a lot of work to do" with regard to diversity in the profession. What do you think the profession needs to do?
Simpson: There is no group of people who should be treated differently [from the population as a whole]. You don’t need to separate out groups and learn how to treat them. You shouldn't have to have special training. You need to learn how to be a human being. You've just got to be a good person to begin with. You can't legislate morality. You either have boundaries and morals that were taught to you, or you don't. You can take every class in the world, but if you really don't believe in it you are going to keep doing [the wrong thing].
APTA has tried to increase minority participation. We can have all kinds of goals, but it's at the ground level that it counts.
#PTTransforms: So what should the profession do in this area?
Simpson: There is hope in the world. There has to be societal change first, and then it will come into our profession. It is amazing to me what the #MeToo movement was able to do in a short period of time. We need a #MeToo movement in health care with regard to inclusion. We need to study what #MeToo did to move society. It's the only thing that will change the complexion of APTA.
[For some], the bottom line is image; sincerity is what we need.
#PTTransforms: In your oral history, you said that if you talk about a problem, you feel you have to be part of the solution. There are some strong voices in the debates over issues such as health care reform, school loan debt, and payment for services. What do you have to say to PTs, PTAs, and students who want to speak up but feel drowned out by those voices?
Simpson: Most of the things [the profession has] achieved started out with one voice. If you are a reasonable person, people will listen to you. Be careful to do your research in order to support your position with facts — not because your grandmother said so. Know what the rules are, know what is being proposed, in depth, to decide [how you will make your case]. And listen to other viewpoints.
If we can get one person who speaks truth to power, that's all we need. But you have to believe it when you speak it.
Part of the reason I joined APTA was to raise hell [about Medicare]. It was so much fun. I recently went down to [Capitol Hill to] testify in favor of the Physical Therapy Compact! That [willingness to speak up] is what I want to see in all health care providers. Get out of smoothing salve on people, and improve the health of America [through advocacy].