University of Vermont

College of Nursing and Health Sciences

UVM Physical Therapy Program Celebrates 40-Year Anniversary

Samuel Feitelberg, P.T., M.S.
UVM physical therapy program founder Samuel Feitelberg, P.T., M.S. (Photo: Clarkson University)

The veteran with a traumatic brain injury, athlete with a torn ligament and child with delayed motor skills can all benefit from physical therapy, a practice that aims to help individuals restore function, improve mobility and reduce pain. Since 1973, the University of Vermont has been educating these health care professionals through a nationally well regarded program. UVM celebrated the 40th anniversary of the College of Nursing and Health Science’s physical therapy program with a special event held May 10 in the Grand Maple Ballroom in the Davis Center on the UVM campus.

Ranked 39th in the nation in 2012 according to U.S. News & World Report “Best Graduate Schools,” UVM’s physical therapy program began with a bachelor’s degree. In the early 2000s, UVM moved to a master’s degree in accordance with American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) requirements. Since 2006, UVM offers an entry-level doctorate in physical therapy (DPT) program as part of the APTA vision to have all physical therapists hold DPT degrees by the year 2020.

Samuel Feitelberg, P.T., M.S., who established the physical therapy department in 1973 and served as its first department chair, was honored at the 40th anniversary event. He served on the UVM faculty for 26 years in such positions as associate dean and director of health sciences in the former UVM School of Allied Health Sciences. In 1996, he moved to Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., where he was the founding associate dean of health sciences and chair of the Department of Physical Therapy.

"The College is proud to celebrate 40 years of excellence in education and growth in the physical therapy program," says Patricia Prelock, Ph.D., dean of the UVM College of Nursing and Health Sciences. "Sam Feitelberg had a wonderful vision 40 years ago. The leaders who followed recognized the value of that vision and the opportunity to leverage the talents of faculty and the importance of the profession to ensure not only a high-quality curriculum, but the preparation of health care providers who make a real difference in the lives of others. The program's contribution to the university, Vermont community and region has been extraordinary."

Brian Reed, Ph.D., P.T.’74, UVM associate provost for curricular affairs and associate professor of rehabilitation and movement sciences, had the privilege of being both a student and a faculty member in the physical therapy program. His memories of the undergraduate physical therapy major experience include “late night camaraderie in the anatomy lab; long hours preparing for class; Larry McCrorey’s ability to make difficult concepts understandable; sitting around the table dressed in whites in clinical debriefings with Judy Anderson; Marry Moffroid’s good humor; the adventure of clinical affiliations; and lifting Sam Feitelberg onto our shoulders when word came that the PT program had received full accreditation.”

It’s no surprise that he felt excited to return to his alma mater as a faculty member in 1982. Thinking back over the past 30 years in his role as a professor, he fondly recalls faculty meetings where everyone sat around the table dressed in dark business attire, Sam Feitelberg’s ability to convince faculty to perform embarrassing skits, and attending Jean Held’s dinner parties. Reed says he enjoyed “the adventure of problem-based learning modules” and became passionate about teaching “great students who inspire us and make the world a better place.”

As a member of the last master’s degree class prior to UVM’s transition to the DPT degree, alumna Jessica Goodine, M.P.T.’05, was one of only 16 students in the MPT program her first year. The small class size provided an excellent learning environment and created significant bonds among the students.

Goodine, who specializes in working with spinal cord injury patients and is co-founder of the nonprofit corporation Empower Spinal Cord Injury, says, “The program taught me how to learn in a completely new manner, how to start from the problem and work backwards through problem-based learning.” While she didn’t find this educational format easy, she says “it taught me how to look at a patient as a whole, work together with my peers, and how to perform an effective and efficient literature search.” Goodine says the influence of Deborah O’Rourke, P.T., Ph.D., clinical associate professor of rehabilitation and movement sciences, had the greatest impact on her.

“Her office door was always open, she always had time to listen, she was incredibly empathetic, and she was always able to provide me with advice and multiple solutions,” shares Goodine. “If it weren’t for Deb, I would not have finished my program and I would not be where I am today in my PT career.”

Current UVM Rehabilitation and Movement Sciences Professor and Chair Diane Jette, P.T., M.S., D.Sc., worked part-time for Feitelberg from 1975 to 1981 while her husband completed a  graduate degree in psychology at UVM. She believes that though PT education has changed over the past decades, it has also stayed the same.

“We have become much more evidence-based in our approaches to patient care,” Jette says. “In the 1970s, there was not a lot of empirical evidence to support our practice, so most of our treatment decisions were based on what we knew about the anatomy and physiology of the human body, but the effectiveness had not been tested. As both basic and applied science have provided more sophisticated information about how the human body functions, physical therapist researchers have advanced our clinical knowledge, physical therapists’ treatments have become more sophisticated and more are better supported by studies of their effectiveness.” Jette also explains why the education of physical therapists changed over the past 40 years.

“In the 70s, physical therapists were educated at the baccalaureate level and practiced largely in hospital settings. Now the majority of PTs practice in out-patient practices and many own their own practices. In most states, patients may receive treatment by physical therapists without physician referral.”

It was due to this increasing scope of practice, expanding knowledge base and focus on professionalism, explains Jette, that all U.S. physical therapy programs now award the DPT degree. When she arrived at UVM in 2006, the PT program was in the process of transitioning to the DPT, and classes were small, but in the past six years, the program’s cohort size has tripled and the curriculum has been completely redesigned.

“Our DPT students have courses that prepare them to participate in healthcare at the system and societal levels, including health policy, quality improvement in healthcare, health care ethics and health promotion and wellness,” says Jette. “Because the focus of healthcare has shifted in many respects to the management of chronic conditions, and PT has a large role in improving  and maintaining the health and function of individuals with many types of conditions, our students now have courses that aid their understanding of how pharmaceuticals affect their patients and their interventions, how imaging studies can be applied and interpreted in designing their treatment plans, and how to advocate for access to healthcare resources for their patients across their lifespan.”

Despite four decades of evolution and these major curricular changes, the characteristics of UVM’s PT students have not altered over time. According to Jette, they are “passionate, hard-working, creative and highly intelligent.” And, she adds, they will be playing a vital role in the evolving health care system and all of our lives.

“Our graduates will be helping all of us manage the inevitable changes that come with aging and allowing us to remain active and functional through our older years,” she says. “They are, and will continue to be, Sam’s legacy.”