When Madelyn Canter was nearly four months old, she accidentally tumbled down a set of hardwood stairs and landed on her head. The fall left her with a traumatic brain injury. She spent weeks in the hospital, suffering repeated seizures that led doctors to medically induce a coma.
At first, “they didn’t think she would survive,” said Cassy Canter, Madelyn’s mother. Now 3 years old, Madelyn fought back to beat the initial prognosis.
But the injury left her with lingering disabilities, including struggles with movement. Today Madelyn is working toward the goal of being able to walk—and—getting crucial help from Bellarmine University’s new pro-bono pediatric physical therapy clinic.
Created last year, the free clinic is offered twice weekly in the fall and spring semesters through the University’s Doctor of Physical Therapy Program, the only such degree program in Louisville and one of only three in the state. Students and supervising faculty offer care to those who can’t afford it or who have gaps in their insurance coverage.
Many children need physical therapy as a result of injury, developmental delays, cardiac and pulmonary conditions or congenital and neuro-musculoskeletal disorders.
On a recent day at the service learning clinic, a space filled with child-sized hoists, swings, treadmills, toys and colorful mats on the second floor of Allen Hall, Ms. Canter watched as students and faculty worked with Madelyn.
After some stretching, student-therapist Chelsea Reinhart and others helped Madelyn climb aboard a flat swing, encouraging her and working on balance. Later, they strapped her into a harness held above a treadmill, helping her move her legs on the platform.
“Do three more steps, and then you can have a break,” Ms. Reinhart said. “Good job, Madelyn. You were bookin’ it.”
Physical therapy “has been the most important therapy we have,” said Ms. Canter, who has insurance but said it doesn’t always fill the need. “Insurance does fight with us on the numbers of visits we have, and we need many. And there’s really no end in sight therapy-wise for her.”
Bellarmine’s Physical Therapy program began offering free service-learning clinics in 2004, and they now operate eight, some of them out in the community—in Park DuValle and in Western Louisville, for instance. But Dr. Beth Ennis, who leads the clinic and teaches courses in pediatrics, said it became increasingly clear there was a group that was not being served.
“We kept getting calls from families, asking if they could bring kids. And the clinics were very adult-focused. The equipment was the wrong size,” she said. In addition, she said, “there are wait lists for every single clinic in town that treats kids.”
Last year, with the help of a $38,000 grant from the Crusade for Children, the program purchased pediatric climbing structures, swings, a partial weight-bearing treadmill system, a gait-analysis system and other equipment and began offering a pediatric-focused clinic on campus. The clinic has already served dozens of children, mostly under age 6.
Shelby Adams, 22, said she got into physical therapy because she has relatives with Down syndrome and realized that early interventions with such therapy were critical. Now she hopes to specialize in pediatrics.
Other students said the clinic was the first opportunity they’d had to work with kids. “I also like that we’re able to help people who wouldn’t normally be able to get help,” said Coleen Baliga, 23, a first-year student.
Ms. Canter said Madelyn responded well to the students. “Having more people to work with has worked out really well,” she said. “They work with her on her standing, stretching and are trying to get her to walk.”
“Every week she does a little bit better, and a little bit better,” Dr. Ennis said.
Therapy also helps stimulate curiosity, thinking and learning in the patients, she said.
On another day at the clinic, Ron McGrath brought in his 15-month-old granddaughter, Rory Mae McGrath, who suffers from spina bifida and is learning how to move without the use of her legs.
Students and faculty surrounded her, urging her to crawl across the floor. They spent time on the platform swing and encouraged her to climb to her grandfather on a soft foam slide. One goal was to make sure she developed symmetrical movement patterns and core body strength to help her sit up and get into assistive devices.
“It looks like she’s using her elbow to pull,” her grandfather said.
“See if you can get her to shift,” responded Dr. Leann Kerr, a PT faculty member.
Program leaders hope to receive another grant from the Crusade for Children this year so they can expand their work. They would especially like to purchase equipment to help assess and fit children for assistive devices.
“When kids aren’t mobile, one of the challenges they have is finding the right device. We’d like to be able to help children try them out and see what fits,” Dr. Ennis said.
The clinic fits into Bellarmine’s Catholic service mission, she said, and it can have powerful results for individual children. “We see some pretty dramatic progress.”
Story and Photos by Chris Kenning
The Pediatric Physical Therapy Clinic is open from 11 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the spring and fall semesters. Information or appointments: 502.272.8434 or firstname.lastname@example.org.