PHOTOS BY MIKE HANLON
Dontay McCray was 17 when a serious automobile accident made him a quadriplegic.
“It broke my neck and bruised my spinal cord,” he says. “It left me with limited movement in my hands and legs.”
A team of four physical therapy students is working with McCray on standing and regaining his balance. McCray is just one of hundreds of people being treated at Nazareth College’s rehabilitation clinics.
Students in the physical therapy clinic – a large room resembling a gymnasium with weights, exercise machines, and parallel bars – have been working to build strength in McCray’s legs. They support him into a sitting position on a pneumatic pad larger than a king-size bed.
It’s been a slow, tough slog for McCray.
“If you do the work, there’s improvement,” he says. “And the students are great. They push me even on those days when I don’t feel like doing it.”
Across the room, Swelonke Simela rests on his back while a student straightens Simela’s leg and lifts gently, stretching his hamstrings and calf muscles. Simela had a stroke five years ago that left him paralyzed on one side of his body. Now he’s walking again.
Over the last four decades, Nazareth has been positioning itself as one of the Northeast’s top choices for students interested in careers in health and human services.
While RIT and the University of Rochester have emphasized research, Nazareth has stressed delivery of skilled services. The college offers a battery of undergraduate and graduate programs in nursing, social work, speech pathology, physical therapy, and music and arts therapy.
Most of the programs are housed on campus in one building. And next fall, Nazareth will add occupational therapy to the mix.
Many colleges offer programs in the health and human services fields. But few have created such an extensive offering of interrelated and allied services. It’s a branding strategy that distinguishes Nazareth from most other colleges, officials say, and it’s one they plan to continue to build on.
The degree programs vary. In some areas including nursing, the college offers a couple of avenues to a bachelor’s degree. But in others such as physical therapy, students can earn a bachelor’s and a doctorate’s degree in six years.
“The constellation of health professional programs we have assembled is unique,” says Shirley Szekeres, dean of the college’s School of Health and Human Services. “Getting the go-ahead for the occupational therapy program was very important. That is big.”
It has taken several years to develop the occupational therapy program, Szekeres says, but it was a necessary addition to round out the college’s offerings. It is part of what Szekeres calls “providing a life participation approach” to services. So often, she says, therapists find that the isolation a patient experiences in the aftermath is worse than the injury or illness.
Nazareth’s rehabilitation clinics see people from almost every age group, from young children to seniors. Students learn rehabilitation skills for a wide range of illnesses and disorders – everything from autism spectrum disorders in children to brain damage in adults.
The advantage for students is learning in an inter-professional culture. It’s not unusual for a person to require the support of multiple disciplines. A stroke victim, for instance, may need physical therapy and speech therapy. And if the person is of working age, occupational therapy may be needed, too.
“That kind of collaboration we are providing is more likely than not what students will need to be able to do once they’re in the field,” Szekeres says.
And the degrees, she says, lead to good-paying careers. The licensure rate for Nazareth students is high. In physical therapy, 96 percent of Nazareth’s students last year passed their state exam the first time they took it. In speech, 100 percent of students passed the first time.
Most experts would agree with Szekeres: the demand for health and human services professionals is expected to be strong well into the next decade. There is even a diverse range of job opportunities in social work, a career with about as much demand as beekeeping 30 years ago. Nazareth offers a master’s degree in social work.
The college has also been among the first to explore new approaches to therapy. Nazareth has a program in Creative Arts Therapy for students to learn to use music and arts therapeutically. The field is still in its infancy.
“It’s a field for musicians and artists who want to be therapists,” says Bryan Hunter, the department’s chair. “In both cases, students have to bring developed skills in music and the arts.”
Music therapy is especially helpful, Hunter says, to people with language barriers.
“So much of our other therapies focus on speech, which is great when it’s there,” he says. “But what do you do if it’s not? A stroke patient may have lost all language overnight, but often they can still respond to music.”
The benefits of having rehabilitation clinics for arts, music, physical, and speech therapies under one roof are not just for Nazareth’s students, Szekeres says. Faculty members use them as research laboratories.
But the School of Health and Human Services plays an important role in the Rochester region, too. Last year, the college provided services to more 3,300 people.
And the services are free. While the clinics receive some support from grants and private donations, they do not accept third-party reimbursement from Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance carriers.
While there are long waiting lists for services, there are no established limits to the amount of care people receive, a battle many people face with the health-care system. Some people have been coming to Nazareth’s clinics for several years.
“As long as they have something to work on, a goal we’re trying to achieve, we’ll see them,” Szekeres says. “We don’t turn anyone away.”