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Celebrating 50 Years

A half-century ago, the Department of Physical Therapy (PT) matriculated its first class as only the second baccalaureate program for PT in Illinois. RFU takes great pride in more than 1,700 graduates.

The following timeline is compiled from information in the university archives.

1970s: Laying the Foundation

The University of Health Sciences/The Chicago Medical School (now RFU) established its bachelors-level physical therapy program in 1970, which was then only the second program of its kind in Illinois. Virginia C. Daniel, MA, RPT, was appointed program chair, a role she would serve until 1981. She is fondly remembered as the “founding mother” of the university’s PT program. The program was the first ever seated in the university’s School of Related Health Sciences (SRHS, now the College of Health Professions).

PT students completed clinical training at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, Mt. Sinai Hospital and other affiliate locations, in addition to coursework in anatomy, physiology, pathology, orthopedics, physical medicine and rehabilitation, and clinical neurology. Students received instruction in patient care, hydrotherapy, therapeutic exercise and the history and philosophy of physical therapy. They were also taught to help patients psychologically, since, as Ms. Daniel noted at the time, “disabilities frequently leave people emotionally distraught, resentful and hopeless. Student therapists are trained to eliminate these barriers and to gain patient confidence.”

"I compared myself to students from other institutions, and it seems the transition from student to practitioner was much easier for me — I never experienced the terror touching patients that other PTs talked about. I attribute that to my training. We were always encouraged not just to remember procedures, but to practice them on one another until we were confident." — Lucille Hickman, PT ’75, on how her training prepared her for the workforce, Year in Review 1975.

1972 was an important year for the PT program. Highlights included the graduation of the inaugural class of students, and the program achieving “fully approved” status by the American Medical Association in collaboration with the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).

In 1976, PT and other programs in the university’s School of Related Health Sciences relocated to “Building 51” on the grounds of the Veterans Administration hospital in the city of North Chicago, Illinois. Building 51 was renovated to include laboratories for gross anatomy, physiology, medical technology, physical therapy, and radiological sciences, and a library, student lounge and student health service. An open house event in October 1976 drew 400 people and connected faculty and administrators with high school guidance counselors to discuss career opportunities in the health professions.

The university launched its master of science (MS) in PT degree in 1978 to encourage those already in the field to advance their scientific, clinical and teaching skills. The MS program combined specialization and education and served as a teacher training model. Students could specialize in cardiopulmonary, neurologic or orthopedic PT. Research studies in clinical areas and a research thesis were required.

1980s: Building Academic Pathways and Research

Wendy Rheault, PT, PhD, FASAHP, FNAP, DipACLM, joined the university in July 1981 and became part of the PT curriculum committee. The committee, which brought together PT faculty, an interprofessional group of basic science faculty and hospital clinicians, conducted a comprehensive review of the program’s curriculum and went on to serve as an advisory group as the profession transitioned to a post-graduate degree. The program expanded by six weeks to accommodate the addition of the following courses: Introduction to Teaching Methods; Evaluation and Program Planning: Research Practicum and an expanded Survey of Community Health; and the requirement of Exercise Physiology. Virginia Daniel left her role as chair of the department of physical therapy in 1981. An award was later established by RFU faculty and alumni in honor of the founding chair of the Department of Physical Therapy and is given based upon scholarship, university service and financial need.

In 1983, Dr. Rheault was appointed chair of the PT Department, a role she held for 10 years. In addition to managing the migration of the program from a baccalaureate degree to a post-graduate degree and an impending APTA accreditation visit, Dr. Rheault also brought faculty development to the forefront.

In 1985, PT Instructor Donna Cech, PT, MS ’92, was one of the first four PTs to pass the APTA’s national certification exam for pediatric physical therapy clinical specialists.

SRHS implemented a core research course for PT students in 1988. Students designed and implemented research projects, utilized computers for statistical analysis, and conducted research in conjunction with their master’s thesis.

1990s: Changes for a New Healthcare Environment

The 1990s saw a maturing program and changes in education for the physical therapy profession.

At the beginning of the decade a number of students graduated with master of science degrees (MS) from the program. The MS program was spearheaded by Marty Jewell, PhD, and continued by Judith Stoecker, PT, PhD, who became graduate program director in 1991, has held many administrative roles at the university, and continues as a associate professor of physical therapy. Other developments in the early part of the decade included the joint teaching of anatomy coursework alongside Chicago Medical School students, and the establishment of the Posture and Spine Motion Laboratory.

The program was projecting into the future when the seeds for a doctorate in physical therapy (DPT) were planted in 1992. By 1996 the program affirmed the ability to offer the terminal degree by the Illinois Board of Higher Education, and in 1998 the first DPT students matriculated. At the time the DPT pathway was being developed, Department Chair Linda Walters, PhD, was quoted in the university publication Communique: “The aims of the DPT program are to reflect the level of responsibility demanded of the PT in the new healthcare environment; improve the quality of patient care; and give students’ academic credit proportionate to the number of education hours.”

The program’s advances were recognized nationally and internally.

In the mid-1990s, the physical therapy program was one of ten programs in the country with expertise in problem-based learning, and it was sought out to advise other schools of health sciences on ways to incorporate this teaching model. In an effort led by Dr. Rheault, the School of Related Health Sciences (SRHS) was recognized by the California-based Foundation for Critical Thinking as the Illinois Center for Excellence in Critical Thinking in Health and Medical Education in 1993.

A milestone of the Department of Physical Therapy occurred when the number of graduates from the program surpassed 1,000 in 1993. In the same year, SRHS celebrated its 25th anniversary with a gala at the Shedd Aquarium, an event that looked back as well as toward the future of growth in the health professions.

In 1997, Dale Schuit, PT, PhD, MS was appointed as program director. His charismatic leadership and dedication to the program was widely known and appreciated. Under his direction the program would later move into the Health Sciences Building and graduate the first DPT class. Dr. Schuit's legacy and passion for the profession has left a lasting mark on the program. 

2000s: A Key of the Interprofessional Team

The 2000s brought many changes to the university, the school and the PT program. In 2004, two significant name changes occurred. Finch University of Health Sciences/Chicago Medical School became Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. Also in this year, the School of Related Health Sciences became the College of Health Professions, in recognition of a new, integrated approach to education.

In 2001, the first DPT degrees were awarded to 33 graduates by the university, at the forefront of the movement in the profession. The Transition Doctor of Physical Therapy (tDPT) program launched at RFUMS in 2001 with the first degrees awarded in 2003. The tDPT program was established to assist physical therapists and the profession during a time of transition in educational requirements for clinical practice. Assistant professor Donna Frownfelter, PT, DPT '03, MA, CCS, RRT, FCCP, FAPTA served as tDPT program director from 2004 through the final graduating class in 2021. 

The program served as home to the Journal of Physical Therapy Education, the premier publication for physical therapy education researchers. Dr. Judy Stoecker led the journal as editor from 2004 to 2010, while Dr. Rheault served as the associate editor. Through their work as long-time editors, they promoted educational scholarship.

The completion of the Health Sciences Building (HSB) in October 2002 brought much needed new facilities and labs, as well as easier access to shared resources for the Physical Therapy Department. This move brought all of the health professions programs, the Chicago Medical School, and the Dr. William M. Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine (which joined the university in 2001) under one roof. The university president at the time, K. Michael Welch, MB, ChB, FRCP, would lead RFU to pioneer an interprofessional healthcare model of education, in which students learn to work in patient-centered, collaborative teams. A course focused on interprofessional healthcare teams was added to the curriculum for RFU students in 2004. Physical therapy faculty members were key to the course's development, including Dr. Stoecker, who served as the first course director and a co-developer. 

In their new facilities, the students thrived as a part of the greater community. In 2003, Joshua Pniewski, DPT ’06, became the president of the RFU Student Executive Council (now ESC). “We’re student contributors and being involved (in community service) helps prepare us for interacting with many people,” Dr. Pniewski said in the university's 2003 Year in Review. Also in 2003, the students conducted the first annual Fitness Screening Clinic during National PT Month (October), a practice which still takes place.

Faculty member and alumna Karen Stevens, PT, DPT ’07, MS, OCS, has championed the outreach experience for years. She is quoted in the university's Helix magazine, “The clinic provides an excellent opportunity for students at different points in their education to share knowledge and interact with faculty in a clinical setting.” The need to build clinical skills led to the establishment of the Neuro Clinic at RFU in 2007, which provided an ongoing opportunity for students to work with patients and experience patient care, treatment progression and communication.

2010s: Innovation and Leadership

One innovative partnership that has thrived in this decade is with the Manual Therapy Institute in training clinical experts in a fellowship program through the American Academy in Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapy. Another innovation was the development of a research portfolio system to stimulate and organize research efforts by the students. In 2013, the student-led Interprofessional Community Clinic (ICC) — which offers health care services, including physical therapy, to the uninsured at no cost  — was founded by four Chicago Medical School students. Since then, PT students have volunteered in interprofessional healthcare teams and have held leadership positions with the student organization the Interprofessional Community Initiative. Department of PT faculty have served as clinicians for the clinic and as the ICC clinical director. 

In 2014, new classroom spaces and the MATS (Movement Analysis and Translational Science) Laboratory in the Health Sciences Building were developed. In the same year, the Susan K. Tappert, PT, DPT ’04, MS ’93, Conference Room in the DeWitt C. Baldwin Institute for Interprofessional Education was dedicated, “In appreciation of her (Susan K. Tappert, PT, DPT ’04, MS ’93) role as founding director of the Institute for Interprofessional Education.”

A historic moment for Rosalind Franklin University took place in July 2019 when Wendy Rheault, PT, PhD, FASAHP, FNAP, DipACLM, became president and CEO. She is the first female and first physical therapist to lead the institution. Joining Dr. Rheault in leadership is Beth Coulson, PT, MBA, who has been on the board since 2012 and was elevated to chair of the Board of Trustees in September 2019. Both have served as the chair of the Department of Physical Therapy. Dr. Rheault also served the university as provost and dean of the College of Health Professions.

Professional honors and fellowship have been bestowed widely upon PT alumni from regional, state and national organizations. RFU’s own College of Health Professions (CHP) Distinguished Alumnus Award was established in 2013 and has been given to five PT alumni. In looking at these honorees, themes of excellence from various aspects of the profession emerge. These leaders continue to make their mark, and we see students and fellow alumni mirroring their career passions.

The inaugural CHP Distinguished Alumnus Award was given in 2014 to Capt. Scott R. Jonson, PT ’84, USN, ret. “Captain Jonson’s superlative leadership has led to transformational changes that positively impact the health and wellness for tens of thousands Navy, Marine Corps, [Department of Defense] personnel and their family members around the world,” Rear Admiral Kenneth Iverson is quoted as saying at a 2016 ceremony, which marked the occasion when Dr. Jonson stepped down as command of the Navy and Marine Public Health Service.

In 2016, the CHP Distinguished Alumnus Award was presented to Sylvestra Ramirez, DPT ’10, MS ’11. Dr. Ramirez owns and operates Physical Therapy of Milwaukee, the first bilingual physical therapy clinic in her hometown of Milwaukee, which won the Wisconsin Minority Business Award for Outstanding Small Business, of which she notes, “... our biggest success is the difference we’ve made in the community.” 

Michael E. Kordecki, PT ’86, DPT ’03, SCS, ATC, received the CHP Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2018. His success in working in sports medicine as PT and athletic trainer for the Chicago Bears, in creating and cultivating Praxis Physical Therapy, a thriving practice that employs several fellow PT alumni, and as an inventor and U.S. Patent holder speaks to the multifaceted career trajectory of many of our alumni. 

2020s: A New Half Century and a Global Pandemic

In 2020, the Department of Physical Therapy began its 50th year. Newly appointed chair and program director of the department, Matthew Nuciforo, PT, DPT, PhD, OCS, FAAOMPT, noted the anniversary when he accepted the role, “From our beginning as a baccalaureate program in 1970, our program has always invested in the success of our students, faculty and profession. In their individual ways, every member of our community has fulfilled our program’s mission to serve society through excellence in patient-centered, culturally responsive practice, service, discovery, and professional and society leadership. I have no doubt this legacy will continue into the future.” 

Unimaginable at the time they were turning in their applications to be a part of RFU, the Physical Therapy Class of 2023 spent the first year of the program in a remote learning environment. The White Coat Ceremony in May 2021 marked the first time the class was together in person. The ceremony is always a significant milestone as students move into more clinical training, but this year it represented a whole new step forward. It was also a time to reflect on the resilience and determination of the Department of Physical Therapy students, faculty and staff as they forged ahead through the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The pandemic has continued as the Class of 2024 began their studies and as the profession celebrates the centennial of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) in 2021. As the pandemic shapes how we live and act, it has also changed how we practice, learn and teach. Adaptation is at the core of the healing work of a PT, an ethos that has served the members of the department well, particularly since March 2020. Among many points of pride through this time: student and graduate licensure pass rates continue to consistently surpass the national average determined by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy; and students were able to provide physical therapy services via telehealth to uninsured persons in the local community through RFU’s Interprofessional Community Clinic.

The Department of Physical Therapy advances excellence in scientific inquiry and discovery. Students and faculty engage in cutting-edge research which contributes to professional knowledge and practice.  Current areas of faculty research are sports-related concussion; patient outcomes following total ankle arthroplasty; vestibular function and balance in people with diabetes; balance and mobility in people with Parkinson’s disease; infants with torticollis; and physical activity during and after pregnancy.  

Faculty conduct ground-breaking research to advance physical therapist education, including the study of diverse, equitable and inclusive admission practices. The program addresses underrepresentation within the profession through enrolling a student population in which over 32% represent an underrepresented demographic group. Another area of faculty research is the use of anatomy and simulation in the DPT curriculum. 

The DPT curriculum is being shaped by those experiencing it. Beginning in spring 2021, student leaders in the Class of 2022 joined faculty in the initial development and implementation of a new Intercultural Responsibility curricular thread. A task force of students and faculty shared in the work of facilitating opportunities for awareness, clinical skills and advocacy. The department is committed to fostering inquisitive listening and dialog, solidarity, critical cooperation, and decision making across cultural dimensions, domains and intersections. 

Beginning in 1972, the Illinois Physical Therapy Association (IPTA) has given awards that recognize the efforts of clinicians, educators and leaders toward the advancement of the physical therapy profession. Throughout the years, 21 alumni and members of the RFU Department of Physical Therapy have been honored by the IPTA for their accomplishments. In 2020, former department chair Dr. Dale Schuit was honored with the Babette Sanders Leadership and Service Award; faculty member Sarah Haag, PT, DPT ’08, MS ’08, received the Outstanding Physical Therapist Clinician Award; and Jennifer Kehler, DPT ’20, won the Outstanding Physical Therapist Student Award. The next year, Ann W. Jackson, PT, DPT ’07, MPH, received the IPTA’s 2021 Societal Impact Award for establishing a food delivery service and a medical equipment refurbishing and distribution operation to serve vulnerable populations. Alumni and faculty also have a history of leadership on the IPTA board and its chapters throughout the state.

Since the beginning of 2020, two alumni have been recognized as College of Health Professions Distinguished Alumni: Matthew L. Primack, PT ’99, DPT ’04, MBA, in 2020; and Leython Williams, DPT ’12, PT, CMTPT, in 2021. Dr. Primack has excelled in leading healthcare teams and is a promoter of interprofessionalism. He has served as president of Advocate Christ Medical Center and is currently president of Advocate Condell Medical Center. Dr. Williams has demonstrated leadership with Athletico and in the profession. He is a member of both the RFU and Concordia College (Ann Arbor) advisory councils, and a charter member and current president of the Detroit Chapter of the National Association of Black Physical Therapists.

Chairs of the Department of Physical Therapy