Mae Thomas (’15 DPT) practices pediatric physical therapy at the UNC Center for Rehabilitation Care, an area of specialization she knew she wanted to pursue since her second year as a PT student.
Her interest in physical therapy began in high school, when she shadowed careers in health science. By the time she arrived at Elon University as an undergraduate student, she had amassed more than 400 hours of time spent shadowing physical therapists.
“I really wanted to be in the medical field,” Thomas said. “But I was looking for a career with work-life balance.”
After receiving a degree in exercise science, Thomas attended the Doctor of Physical Therapy program in the Department of Allied Health Sciences. A school-based clinical rotation spurred her interest in pursuing pediatric physical therapy.
“I have patients now who I was working with as a student,” Thomas said. “Getting to watch children grow and develop, and being an integral part of that, is really rewarding.”
If families have never attended therapy before, Thomas familiarizes them with what to expect. This includes an assessment of the child’s development, including their movement and strength, in order to determine if they meet milestones of a typically developing child. For infants, Thomas assesses strength and flexibility, among other indicators, and she monitors their progress over time.
“Our residency program is truly a lifespan program, and that kind of perspective is really hard to match elsewhere,” Thomas said.
Thomas worked as a physical therapist in outpatient pediatrics for one year near Lexington, North Carolina, before returning to the Division of Physical Therapy to pursue the division’s pediatric physical therapy residency.
She said pediatric physical therapy encompasses many areas of physical therapy, including orthopedic, neurologic, and cardiac rehabilitation.
“I have lots of kids who take their first steps in my sessions, or sit independently for the first time in my sessions,” Thomas said. “It’s the best of all worlds, because I get to play every day.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Thomas said the CRC began telehealth visits, which can allow for more personalized care because therapists are able to see the home environment. However, Thomas said she and her team have primarily stayed busy with in-person visits with families.
“We’ve been the lifelines for a lot of families during the pandemic, because everybody feels like they’re on an island,” Thomas said.
Thomas said the faculty in the Division of Physical Therapy are committed to research, to their students, and to the future of the profession—each attributes that drew her to the program.
“They’re incredibly approachable even though they’re world-renown in their fields,” Thomas said. “The combination of excellence in research, in their clinical experience, in their contributions to the field—combined with their humility—really drew me to UNC.”
The Doctor of Physical Therapy small student cohort size also appealed to Thomas, because she knew she would have a chance to build strong relationships with faculty, many of whom are also practicing clinicians. She also said the University’s mission to give back to our state through patient-centered clinical care also appealed to her.
“It matters that our faculty are practicing clinicians because they bring real-world examples to our work every day,” Thomas said.
Thomas said she has benefitted from an interdisciplinary team-based model; she often works with speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists to collaborate on patient care.
“We’re all better clinicians because we get to work together, especially for our patients who have complex needs,” Thomas said. “I get to be part of a team, with a family, all working toward making their child the happiest, most playful version of themselves.”
Since completing the pediatric residency program, Thomas has taught several lectures and has co-taught courses in the division.
“The sign of a good PT program is that UNC is turning out clinicians that UNC Medical Center wants to hire,” Thomas said. “I’m constantly impressed by the high quality of clinicians. […] I think the department creates an expectation for active learning that our students live up to.”
The Division of Physical Therapy, ranked #9 in the country according to U.S. News & World Report, is housed in the Department of Allied Health Sciences. Deborah Givens, PT, DPT, PhD, serves as the division’s director.