Serving Our Communities. It's What We Do.
Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes
It was a Tuesday night and after a long day of lectures, labs, and studying, I and 3 other Columbia University physical therapy students took the subway to Harlem.
We arrived at a restored Catholic cathedral that was transformed into a transitional homeless center called Fortune Society. We entered a room with lots of energy, one that resembled a game room of sorts. After debating whether or not we were in the right place, we were greeted by Sam Flax, PT, DPT, founder of Stand Tall Physical Therapy, and taken to the volunteer office.
New York City's homeless population is upward of 60,000 individuals, and the deficit in access to quality health care is astronomical. Sam wanted to use his practice to try and decrease that gap by offering pro-bono physical therapist services in any way that he could, thus, Stand Tall Physical Therapy was established.
During the first visit we learned that Fortune Society is a transitional home center for men and women who have been previously incarcerated. It offers a holistic one-stop support system for reentry after incarceration through services, including housing, employment, family, mental health, and substance abuse treatment.
Sam felt that Stand Tall Physical Therapy could add physical therapy to the list, while simultaneously offering a learning experience for eager students.
That's where we came in.
As students of Columbia University's Program in Physical Therapy and board members of Columbia PT-CAN (Physical Therapy Community Action Network), we take on the responsibility of partnering with existing volunteer organizations, or creating volunteer opportunities for ourselves and fellow classmates. We reached out to Sam in an effort to work with Stand Tall Physical Therapy in their pro-bono work, and the rest is history.
Columbia University PT-CAN Student Board (L to R) Saiah Mays, SPT, Sarah Lloyd, SPT, Kayla Coutts, SPT, and Kyle Zreibe, SPT.
That first night we arrived, we walked into the "clinic," which was really a library with a few donated plinths, goniometers, and a physio-ball.
Despite the humble size, I'll never forget the large impact of that first patient's story.
A young man walked in, very happy to see our faces, and happy to have someone finally listen to his story. As another volunteer physical therapist (PT) began the subjective exam, my classmates and I listened intently and tried to follow along with the PT's exam questions.
He was in a car accident before being incarcerated a few years ago, and that's when he began to have numbness and tingling in his hands. He underwent total C-spine fusion and was left with next to no neck motion.
The intenseness of the surgery in combination with the poor quality—if any—follow-up physical therapy offered in prison, left this man with extreme pain, stiffness, and weakness so severe that he had not been able to lift his arm for the past 2 years.
I remember thinking, "Wait, this man hasn't been able to lift his arm for the past 2 years…and no one did anything?" I was in utter disbelief and greatly disappointed.
The exhaustion that had initially reminded me that it was 7:00 pm and I'd essentially been up for 13 hours, drifted away as I began to discover how I can use my future physical therapy degree to give back in a major way.
The Stand Tall physical therapist carried on with the rest of the exam, and then provided the man with pain management techniques and a developed plan of care that centered on his wants and needs.
By the end of the session there was a sense of hope in the room, even after such a shocking story and overwhelming patient presentation. What was even better was knowing that he lived right upstairs and was scheduled to come back for treatment from individuals who really care about his well-being.
As a student, experiences like this are an invaluable supplement to a textbook education. There is limited clinical experience, especially in the first year of school and even into your second year, depending on your program, because we still have a lot of content to learn. However, with volunteer clinic opportunities students are under the supervision of a licensed, practicing physical therapist, and in this case, we're helping to serve a population desperately in need of our services.
So not only do we as students get to practice the clinical skills we learn in class, but we get the privilege of a one-on-one model of student-teacher learning that is just not possible in a traditional physical therapy curriculum.
The relationship with Stand Tall Physical Therapy is only one of Columbia University's newest volunteer clinical experiences. There are others that are long-standing such as Columbia Student Medical Outreach (CoSMO), which has the additional element of interdisciplinary care. It's a student-run free clinic staffed with medical, nursing, physical therapy, public health, and social work students serving members of the Washington Heights community.
This program is one of the reasons that I chose Columbia's physical therapy program, and it's an experience that has helped me build my clinical and patient interaction skills since my first semester.
Organizations like Stand Tall and CoSMO show students a concrete link between education and service, both of which are equal components to becoming a well-rounded physical therapist.
Sam Flax's vision for Stand Tall and Fortune Society's missions for those in need gives me and more than 80 subsequent Columbia University student volunteers a solidified message that community service doesn't have to end once we graduate.
Most importantly, treating populations in need opens your eyes to new viewpoints of the health care system, the wide array of opportunities we have as future physical therapists, in addition to your own privilege and observing diversity within the society in which we live.
I highly recommend that other physical therapy students begin to explore ways they can get out there and build clinical skills through service opportunities. It benefits everyone, and the stories and experiences you gain will be invaluable. And if an opportunity doesn't exist, create one.
It's hard to take on projects when balancing school and extracurricular activities, so in building a relationship with Stand Tall Physical Therapy it was awesome to have Columbia PT-CAN for support.
PT-CAN is essentially a group of students who have come together and made a commitment to support those who want to develop service projects. All you need is a group of dedicated, service-oriented classmates and you can do the same.
As physical therapy students, our course loads may seem insurmountable at times, but we can really fuel meaningful change for our communities.
I hope this article can encourage someone to take that initiative, and encourage other programs to develop their own community action networks to develop service initiatives that can make a lifetime of impact.
If you'd like to learn more about Columbia University's Service Learning opportunities you can visit their website and follow them on Facebook.
Saiah Mays, SPT, attends Columbia University and is part of Columbia's PT-CAN group.