Third-year Doctor of Physical Therapy student Joseph “Joe” Douglass has committed to serve in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps as a physical therapist following his graduation from the Division of Physical Therapy, set for August 2020. Douglass, a California native, plans to serve in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, an agency staffed by the corps. He will join the corps as part of the Senior Commissioned Officer Student Training and Extern Program.

Joseph Douglass
Joseph Douglass

Douglass’s service is considered a uniformed, but not armed, service. He will complete an officer basic course and will serve on a deployment team for situations of natural disaster and public health crises, both domestic and abroad.

“I’ve been interested in some form of public service for a while now,” Douglass said. “I feel like there are a lot of opportunities for health care providers to be part of something bigger. […] The public health service is dedicated to that kind of mission.”

Overseen by the U.S. Surgeon General, the corps includes more than 6,500 health care professionals, including physical therapists, nurses, and physician assistants. The corps is a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

As Douglass explained, his work in federal prisons will be similar to work of physical therapists in the general civilian population. Douglass will work with inmates to be functional in the correctional environment, often with a focus on activities of daily living (ADL) such as getting out of bed, going to the bathroom, and other basic needs.

“Even though individuals may be incarcerated, at that point, the system has some responsibility for their basic needs,” Douglass explained. “Just because someone’s in prison doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be unaccounted or uncared for.”

For those who will be released from the prison system, Douglass said a physical therapist can help an inmate prepare for a transition back to the civilian world. “Their time in prison shouldn’t limit their functional abilities,” Douglass said. “We want to help position them so when they do get out into society, they can get out of their house or go to the store without major mobility deficits.”

Douglass said working for the corps is an opportunity to be a positive and helping influence for people who face incarceration.

“It doesn’t matter why they’re there,” Douglass said. “I will be part of their experience; I think it’s important that people who are in prison still have the ability to access health care, and in my opinion, physical therapy should be part of basic health care.”

Deborah Givens, the division’s director, said Douglass has shown good judgement, responsibility and compassion as a student. “I continue to be impressed with his maturity and willingness to accept feedback,” Givens said. “He has the potential to be an excellent physical therapist. He will serve his patients well.”

During his time with the corps, Douglass could serve on rapid deployment teams, which aid individuals affected by hurricanes, tornadoes, and migrants detained at the border. He initially learned about the opportunity to join the Corps from alumna Gwendolyn Hall ’06, who works with the Bureau of Prisons in Butner, North Carolina.

“She has been a great mentor for me for the past ten months,” Douglass said. He said Hall will serve as his supervisor during his final student rotation in Butner during summer 2020.

As a student, Douglass said he has noticed an emphasis on service within the program. He has volunteered at the Student Health Action Coalition (SHAC), a student-led organization that provides free health services to those who are uninsured and underinsured. He has also volunteered at Urban Ministries of Durham, providing various physical therapy services.

“That emphasis has helped me continue to think about lots of people out there who could use our service who don’t have access to it all the time,” Douglass said. “I’m hoping this will be a path in my PT career that I feel very passionate about.”

Michael Lewek, an associate professor within the division, serves as a faculty advisor at SHAC. He said Douglass is a leader in his class.

“I find him to be approachable, humble, generous, curious, and highly motivated,” Lewek said. “He asks intelligent, thoughtful questions that help to advance his own knowledge and that of the group.”

While Douglass doesn’t know where the bureau will place him, he said service in the corps will provide him with networking opportunities as he begins his career as a physical therapist.

“It’s an excellent opportunity to get my career started,” Douglass said.

Deborah Givens, PT, DPT, PhD, is also a professor within the division. Michael Lewek, PT, PhD, is also the associate director at the Closed-Loop Engineering for Advanced Rehabilitation  core within the joint Department of Biomedical Engineering. The Division of Physical Therapy is housed in the Department of Allied Health Sciences and is ranked #15 in the country according to U.S. News & World Report.