Tyler Gregory and Sharon Williams work together on the elliptical at the Marquette ComMUnity PT Clinic, housed in the Marquette Physical Therapy Clinic. (photo by Abigail Ng)

Lifting Weights and Raising Spirits

Marquette students, faculty and alumni provide free physical therapy to medically uninsured Milwaukee residents at the ComMUnity PT Clinic.

By Abigail Ng

Laughter echoes through Cramer Hall room 215 as the swishing sound of an elliptical hums in the background. 58-year-old Milwaukee resident, Sharon Williams, shares stories of her family as she steadily walks on the exercise machine. All the while Marquette ComMUnity Physical Therapy Clinic director and sixth-year PT student, Tyler Gregory, supports her with a hand and a smile.

“It’s been fun, kind of like an adventure,” Gregory reminisces. “When she came in the first day she couldn’t even lay on her back or her stomach because she was in so much pain.”

Now after six sessions, Williams can be seen at the pro bono PT clinic lifting weights and pulling resistance bands.

After Williams stopped working due to back and leg pain, she was no longer able to receive health insurance. To find the medical help she needed, she turned to one of the free health care clinics in Milwaukee, Bread of Healing, who then referred her to the Marquette ComMUnity PT Clinic.

“I wouldn’t be able to do the things I do now if I wasn’t able to come here,” Williams says, nodding ardently. “I can go up and down the stairs without holding onto the railing. I can get into the bathtub now. I like my showers, but I love my baths.”

She laughs at her comment with her whole body, not once flinching from her injury.

Williams exercises with a resistance band as Gregory watches attentively. (photo by Abigail Ng)

Relieving Pain and Connecting Community

There are plenty more success stories like Williams’s at Marquette’s first student-run pro bono PT clinic, designed to treat those without access to medical insurance. One woman received the proper diagnosis and treatment for her multiple sclerosis. Another man had been self-medicating with drugs and alcohol to treat a knee injury, but by the time he finished his PT, he was sober, pain free and employed.

Rodrigo Caballero, a sixth year PT student, remembers the moment he realized he could make a difference at the clinic.

“He got happier and happier whenever we saw him,” Caballero said of one man who came in with lower back pain. “It’s so satisfying to know I helped even just one life.”

Rodrigo Caballero smiles as he records patient notes at the ComMUnity PT Clinic. (photo by Abigail Ng)

Caitlin Fortuna, PT class of 2016 and former student director, can recall a case that left a positive impact on her and the clinic. One of her patients needed PT after suffering a stroke, but he could not afford transportation. Because of him, the clinic was inspired to give free bus passes to patients. With his newfound easy access to public transit, Fortuna’s patient was able to come in for his sessions and regain his strength.

“The uninsured are a highly underserved group, so having pro bono services like the clinic is highly needed. It’s nice that the clinic has grown and is serving a lot of people who need it,” said Ryan Gorecki, PT class of 2015 and mentor at the clinic.

Through volunteering at the clinic, students witness firsthand the way poverty affects access to quality healthcare and the service gaps that currently exist in the system.

“It’s nice to have this clinic to break down barriers and see what disparities exist around us,” said Allison Field, sixth year PT student and clinic director.

Top: Gregory adjusts Williams’ posture during one of her PT sessions last winter 2016. Bottom: Skeletal models line the window sills of the clinic. (photos by Abigail Ng)

Making Solutions a Reality and Expanding Outreach

After working with some of the pro bono medical clinics in Milwaukee, Jeff Wilkens, ComMUnity PT Clinic faculty advisor, noticed the need for a designated center for free PT. Some students were already travelling to surrounding pro bono health care clinics like City on a Hill and Repairers of the Breach to administer PT, but the process was not logistically practical and limited the number of patients and students involved.

The Marquette ComMUnity PT Clinic opened in 2013 and has been growing ever since. The clinic is open five days a week for two hours each day. During the 2015–2016 academic year, the clinic had 320 visits and 50 referrals, adding up to an estimated $50,000 in services.

“Our goal is for it to grow and get bigger so we can help more people. More hours per week, more clients, meaning there are more people out there getting PT they may not be getting otherwise,” Wilkens said. “More hours means more clinical experience for students that are already involved or more opportunities for students to get involved.”

The clinic is self sufficient from fundraising and donations, as well as self-perpetuating and sustainable with each new group of student directors. From free bus passes to more take home equipment, each year of students bring new ideas to improve patient care.

“I give [the student directors] the charge to take the clinic to the next level and they always do,” Wilkens said

(photo by Abigail Ng)

A Bilateral Relationship and a Calling to Serve

The pro bono PT clinic is a unique intersection between Marquette and the city. The relationship can be described as bilateral; while Milwaukee residents get physical therapy they may otherwise not have access to, students gain valuable clinical experience.

“They get to put to use the things they’re actually learning in class and lab in parallel,” Wilkens said.

A mentorship program is in place to help students learn and successfully treat their patients. Fourth, fifth and sixth year PT students get paired with one of their peers, working with clients together and learning from each other. Marquette alumni also come back as clinical instructors to supervise.

Caballero initially wanted to join the clinic because 50 percent of the patients served at the clinic are Hispanic, a group he relates to and cares a lot about as Hispanic himself. But once he started volunteering at the clinic, he realized how much he enjoyed the mentoring aspect of it as well.

“It benefits both [the mentor and the mentee] because I get to share what I know from the classroom and it helps me retain all the information. It also feels good knowing that I’m helping them prepare for what they might see in a clinical setting,” Caballero said.

The clinic’s student directors also gain valuable experience. They learn what it is like to run their own practice, organize volunteers, and engage with community members.

(photo by Abigail Ng)

Even students that are not in the PT school can get involved. Spanish students volunteer as translators, and the clinic is also looking to work with the psychology department. Many patients experience mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, which can hinder their physical progress. By working with the psychology department, the ComMUnity PT Clinic would be able to make referrals to the Marquette psychology clinic. Ultimately the goal is holistic body, mind and soul treatment.

All roles at the clinic are volunteer, and according to Wilkens, that reflects who Marquette is an institution.

“That’s part of the Jesuit identity,” he said. “The students are amazing because the ones that choose to do this really have a desire and calling to serve.”