FVCC program prepares physical therapy assistants for the future

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Physical therapy assistant student Leslie Riser assesses the muscle tone of fellow student Glen Holmes at Flathead Valley Community College. Each of the college’s 12 PTA students must complete various skills assesments over course of the year-long program. (Mary Cloud Taylor/Daily Inter Lake)

The future of aging baby boomers nationwide depends on the next generation of medical professionals, such as the future physical therapy assistants currently enrolled at Flathead Valley Community College.

The PTA program, described by its students as “fast and furious,” takes about a year to complete. Within that time, students prepare for a future working under physical therapists as licensed assistants.

The national need for such assistants is projected to rise by 31 percent over the next 10 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, making it one of the top 10 fastest growing occupations in the nation.

The PTA field can thank the growing geriatric population for that rise, as aging citizens rely on physicians to maintain their healthy and active lifestyles.

Despite being the smallest of its kind in the northwestern U.S., according to Program Director Janice Heil, FVCC’s PTA program boasts success rates well above the national average, with a nearly 94 percent graduation rate and a 100 percent employment rate for graduates.

Each year, the program accepts 12 students based on their academic record, work experience and an interview.

Heil said that good communication and people skills hold more weight than perfect grades when choosing potential students, and though relevant work experience holds value, she said that experience does not always have to come from the medical field.

“What I found who were great candidates for this program were waitresses and bartenders,” Heil said. “I mean those folks know how to multitask, they’re good talking with people, they have the ability to juggle a lot of things.”

The perfect candidate for the program, Heil said, needs to show interest in the human body and how it moves, enjoy interacting with people, communicate well, work well in a hands-on environment, excel in science and math and be capable of motivating people who don’t want to be motivated.

Once accepted, new students enroll in a rigorous course schedule that will keep them in class from around 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. every weekday. The work doesn’t end once they leave the classroom, however, as students meet, sometimes on nights and weekends, to work on skills assessments or group projects.

“You find a balance between your personal life and your school life,” said Alese Larson, a current student.

Her classmate, Kaylie Ueland, agreed, adding that the second semester has proven to be much more enjoyable than the first.

“You’ll have a really hard four months learning everything but then you get to apply it. It’s pretty fun,” Ueland said. “First [semester] is all the basics, the concepts. But second semester we’re doing ultrasound, [electrical stimulation]. We learned all that this week.”

The first semester of the program consists of 13 weeks in the classroom, followed by four weeks of clinical work.

The second semester includes a six-week clinical followed by a week of seminars, another six-week clinical followed by another seminar, graduation and licensing preparation.

During that time, Heil said, those 12 students spend a lot of time together and become a very tight-knit group.

“This is about independently you taking care of yourself but also knowing how to support others in the program because that’s what you’re going to need to do in this job,” Heil said.

Getting through that first semester was tough, Ueland said, but she added, “after you do a clinical you think, this is actually really worth it.”

“It’s really rewarding to see you start with a patient, working with them, seeing how much they improve over a couple of weeks. Them being able to go home is huge to them so it’s really rewarding to see it,” future PTA Rachelle Leukuma added.

Leukuma, Ueland and the rest of their classmates will complete what many of them consider one of the most stressful, yet rewarding, years of their lives this summer before entering the workforce as licensed PTAs.

They will go on to work in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, clinics, rehabilitation centers and more, helping people in the Flathead and beyond get better and get moving.

Applications for the fall 2018 class at FVCC are due May 11.

To view all program requirements, the application and other information about the PTA program, visit www.fvcc.edu/physical-therapist-assistant or contact Janice Heil at (406)756-3373 or jheil@fvcc.edu.

Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.

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