Rehab ready: Free clinic for stroke, Parkinson’s and other patients boosts quality of life
Research tells us that uninsured adults and children
have less access to proper health care.
It makes recovery from any illness difficult and
can lead to a poorer quality of life.
But in Genesee County, many have found a source of hope:
A free rehabilitation clinic run by UM-Flint –
one that comes from the HEART.
HEART stands for Health, Equity, Action, Research and Teaching.
Associate Professor, Physical Therapy Department
So health equity is ensuring that people have access to health care.
Health care at HEART began more than a decade ago
by volunteer physical therapy students from UM-Flint
Doctor of Occupational Therapy Student
This is a pro bono clinic run by students and clinicians
in the area and professors at UM-Flint.
I originally got started because they needed clinician volunteers and I really saw the value that I could take what we were learning in class and really get them to practice it in the clinic.
Since its inception, HEART has served
hundreds from the community.
We’ve been coming since it started, so it’s probably seven years.
The majority of the clients we see are older adults, most have stroke or Parkinson’s disease.
Led by physical therapy, occupational therapy or nursing students,
participants are given individualized treatments,
or they can take part in specialized exercise classes.
David Mack’s Caregiver
Without exercise he’d be in a wheelchair today or not here. He improved cognitively and they attribute that to exercise.
Doctor of Occupational Therapy Student
You’re actually working because you want to help the patient. The reward is seeing the patient progress.
It’s a learning experience for all of us.
We learn a lot from each other and can apply that to our patients to help them get where they want to be.
They’re really patient and they really work with me and they—and they never, they never seem to get overwhelmed.
Patients recognize that they are contributing to the students’ education.
Students’ education begins in the classroom
where they learn the necessary skills to treat patients,
but real-world experience is crucial.
Clinical Assistant Professor, Occupational Therapy
Practicing things in the classroom with a student partner is one thing,
and then practicing it with an actual client is totally different
It’s all learning by doing.
it really teaches you how to show empathy and not just talk about empathy.
When we first started here, he was still wheelchair-bound
So he has gone from that to walking with no assisted devices. I don’t think we would have gotten to that point on our own.
Doctor of Physical Therapy Program Student
Being able to see them slowly progress and get better is a big indicator for me to be like this is why I chose physical therapy.
More than 300 UM-Flint students have participated
at HEART over the last 10 years.
We’ve had over 300 students over the last 10 years
that have engaged in HEART activities. Our patients come with goals. They want to be able to do something better. And as a physical therapist, students recognize that they have the chance to really make an impact in their life.
If I hadn’t come here and done everything like that, I think I would have been dealing with a walker by now.
They have hope. They have hope that they can continue to get better in their own life and be able to do the things that they want to do.
Doctor of Physical Therapy Program Student
I’m here to help. And so seeing that progress is definitely why I’m here.
FLINT—The first time Craig Hawkins arrived at the free physical therapy clinic, the aftereffects of his stroke weighed heavy. He rolled up in a wheelchair with a tracheotomy, and had already exhausted his medical benefits.
“I didn’t think he’d be out of a wheelchair,” his wife, Cindy Hawkins, said. “I give a lot of credit to HEART clinic for getting him moving. He went from a wheelchair to walking without any assistance.”
The HEART Clinic (Health Equity. Action. Research. Teaching.) is a no-cost student and faculty clinic that provides health care access to the uninsured and underinsured in Flint and Genesee County. Founded 13 years ago, the clinic has helped hundreds of people with services ranging from physical therapy, occupational therapy, nursing and rehab programs for stroke patients and those with Parkinson’s disease.
Launched in 2010 as PT HEART at the North End Soup Kitchen, it offered physical therapy and health education; other disciplines have been integrated during the life of the program through UM-Flint’s College of Health Sciences. The clinic is now staffed by UM-Flint graduate students in occupational therapy and physical therapy and undergraduate nursing students all supervised by licensed clinicians.
The services are offered every Friday at the Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village, a community gathering place. And a virtual exercise class for Parkinson’s patients is offered every other Saturday.
Craig Hawkins, a former auto engineer, was at work five years ago when he had the stroke. Working with Libby Yost, who earned her doctorate in occupational therapy in 2018, was a turning point for him.
“One of the first things Libby did with him is to teach him how to make his lunch again,” Cindy said.
“Toast and bologna and cheese and mayonnaise,” Craig said with a smile. “And a Mountain Dew.”
Craig’s self-sufficiency at home has meant a big improvement in their quality of life. “They’ve done a fantastic job. They give it their all—and it comes through with how they work with the patients,” Cindy said.
Yost, who is now a clinical assistant professor of occupational therapy at UM-Flint, said the benefits go both ways.
“It’s all learning by doing,” she said. “It really teaches you on the fly how to work with people, how to collaborate, how to build relationships and how to show empathy, and not just talk about empathy.”
In the gymnasium, the weekly Parkinson’s exercise class begins. Nine participants are given hollow plastic tubes to hit against a chair “As loud as you can!” says the student leading the class. Each patient has a student or two working with them as they do chair exercises and then move to floor mats for core work.
On the sidelines, Agnes Taylor watches her husband Ronald Taylor, 83, a former middle school teacher, make some noise. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2020. Agnes, who is a registered nurse, said she noticed tremoring and shuffling at first.
“His balance is a little off. He’s not really self-motivated to exercise,” she said. “That’s why this is good for him. And also knowing there are other people in the community who are dealing with this.”
Ronald Taylor said he likes the way the students create challenging yet attainable exercise goals for the group. “I feel like I’m more physically fit. I know I wouldn’t do nearly as much on my own.”
Meanwhile, three students are supporting a woman as she walks the perimeter of the gym as part of the MoveMore class, which features assisted mobility and heart rate monitoring to aid in getting people back on their feet.
Emma DeBaake Brighton, a second-year physical therapy doctoral student, encourages Cynthia Cummings as she concentrates: “Big steps. Look at stepping past that foot.”
Cummings had a stroke in 2017 and couldn’t walk. She tried other rehab programs, but said: “This is the only place that has gotten me mobile.”
Cummings, who wanted to be able to walk again by her birthday last October, said the students helped her beat the goal. “(When I got here) I was afraid to stand but they helped rebuild my self-confidence.”
Amy Yorke is an associate professor of physical therapy at UM-Flint who is also board-certified in neurologic physical therapy and developed both of HEART’s exercise classes. She said that while the clinic specializes in stroke and Parkinson’s patients, it targets anybody who requires skilled physical therapy or has trouble moving.
“Our patients come with goals. They want to be able to do something better. And as a physical therapist, students recognize that they have the chance to really make an impact in their life,” she said.
“I think a lot of our patients keep coming because they benefit from it and they realize they’re helping a student grow and learn. I think when you—particularly for these patients that have had a significant change in their life—give them a sense of purpose again, it’s really meaningful for them.”
For David Mack, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 20 years ago, the message then was to “go home, lay down and die.” That was before it was known that vigorous exercise could slow down the progression of the disease.
“This program is essential. I’d shake like a leaf without it,” he said.
Judy Mack said her husband has seen cognitive improvements on his neurological psychological testing that’s attributed to the exercise he does at the clinic. “Without exercise, he’d be in a wheelchair or not here.”
The students, she said, are “learning that every Parkinson’s person is different. They all have different struggles.”
And these are critical lessons for Yorke’s students, who are used to practicing skills on each other, many of whom have no movement problems.
“And so seeing somebody who actually has a movement problem and then having to do a muscle strength test or check their posture, it really allows them to practice,” Yorke said.