In fall 2005, Angela McCaffrey Rosenberg ‘88, and her husband, Marty, answered two life-changing telephone calls within the span of three hours. The first phone call announced the birth of their granddaughter, Parker; the second officially diagnosed Angela with multiple sclerosis, a debilitating, and difficult-to-treat neurological disease.
“Everyone’s heard the phrase ‘I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news,’” Angela said. “That summed up that day pretty well.”
Since Angela’s diagnosis, the Rosenbergs have solidified their legacy as champions of research and patient care for multiple sclerosis. Together, they launched the MS STEP UP program more than ten years ago, with the first cohort of MS-trained students graduating in 2010. Recently, they have both endowed the Angela and Marty Rosenberg MS STEP UP Endowment for Multiple Sclerosis and Neurodegenerative Diseases in Physical Therapy, a long-lasting step toward improving health care and patient outcomes for people living with MS.
The program and fund grew out of a need to fill a void in health care and in education, one which Angela saw firsthand during her time as both a student of physical therapy at Virginia Commonwealth University and as an associate professor in the UNC School of Medicine Division of Physical Therapy.
Angela, a physical therapist who continued on to pursue a DrPH in public health from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1997, noticed what proved to be symptoms of the disease while in Italy that spring. After returning to the United States, she underwent MRI, CT scans, and various lab tests. “It was rough,” she said. “I spent months undergoing invasive treatments, and we still didn’t know what was wrong.”
Angela’s experience is not unique: She and one of her three older sisters are two of more than 10,000 new people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis per year. It is a degenerative disease which affects balance, muscle control, and other basic body functions. It can be difficult to diagnose, as its symptoms are similar to that of other neurologic disorders. Often, a neurologist diagnoses the disease, for which there is no cure. However, various drugs and treatments can slow its course and reduce its effects.
Following the diagnosis, Angela decided to use her story to teach others about its effects and what can be done from a therapeutic perspective to enhance quality of life.
The lack of expertise in treating people with MS perplexed her; there were so few physical therapy specialists who treated movement issues stemming from MS. “I felt a need and a desire to do what I could to improve the health care landscape,” Angela said. “MS is a shape shifter, but it impacts movement, which is a physical therapist’s bread and butter.”
Her solution to tackling this issue came in the form of creating the MS Standardized Treatment and Education Program with University Partners (MS STEP UP) program, designed for physical therapy students to learn more about MS and how to diagnose and treat issues in patients that stem from the disease, such as with gait, balance, and other mobility issues. As an educator in physical therapy, Angela identified what academic content MS experts would need in order to succeed. She worked in concert with an interdisciplinary group of professionals and community members with MS to build the MS STEP UP curriculum with support from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. In composing the program’s mission and objectives, she valued insight from colleagues and faculty in the Department of Allied Health Sciences, where the physical therapy program is housed.
“How do we get students hooked on a need to study MS? We give them a scholarship to pursue in-depth clinical care approaches and research to treat MS and other neurological diseases,” Angela said.
Their efforts have paid off, with the program producing world-class MS scholars who have gone on to treat patients and educate other therapists around the country and overseas. Angela directed the program for more than half a decade, providing one-on-one mentoring of MS scholars who grew in their clinical knowledge and as leaders in the profession. The program has now expanded to the University of South Florida and to the University of Kansas Medical Center, garnering attention from the National MS Society, which recognized Angela’s work by inducting her in the society’s Health Professionals Hall of Fame for her volunteerism.
Prudence Plummer, PT, PhD, an associate professor in the division, currently leads the UNC MS STEP UP program and is supported by faculty members, the volunteer leadership team, and the National MS Society. Plummer and the MS STEP UP scholars are active in MS-related clinical research and community-based work. Since its inception in 2008, 18 physical therapy students have completed the MS STEP UP program and have several have obtained certification as specialists in MS.
“Most of our graduates have stayed in North Carolina as licensed physical therapists,” Plummer said. “They continue to serve the program and provide a great and wide-reaching benefit to the community that benefits from this specialized education.”
Recent MS STEP UP graduate Jessica Anderson, DPT, said she hopes to foster increased awareness and knowledge of MS within the Latinx population, to develop educational resources for health care professionals, caregivers, and to ensure optimal care for those living with MS.
“This scholarship has allowed me the time to focus on my clinical skills by taking advantage of experience outside the classroom,” Anderson said. “I am extremely grateful for this support.”
As the Rosenbergs began to approach retirement, Angela and Marty wanted to leave a legacy and decided to endow MS STEP UP to ensure its success for years to come. The fund will, in part, support faculty, research, and world-class scholarship among physical therapy students.
“It’s our mission to educate students through a partnership model,” Angela said. “This partnership expresses our passion and commitment to MS and other neurological diseases through enhanced education knowledge, rehabilitation skills, and research.”
Angela credits Marty for his support during her journey with this disease and her desire to ensure the MS STEP UP program’s sustainability. “He has been at my side every MS step of the way,” Angela said. “We are so honored to be in the position to support this program so that others might be able to share our vision to educate physical therapy students so they can treat and educate others. This will multiply that dream tenfold.”