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National Physical Therapy Month: How Ashlee McLeod was drawn to PT & how COVID-19 changed the field

October is National Physical Therapy Month. Florence 1 Schools physical therapist Ashlee McLeod recently had the opportunity to reflect on what led her to the field and the creative way that district therapists had to evolve their sessions due to COVID-19.

“My grandmother was crippled by a drunk driver when she was in her twenties, the week before she and my grandfather were supposed to get married.,” McLeod said. “She broke both of her arms and both of her legs and I grew up hearing stories about how much her therapists affected her and helped her because she had to learn to walk again and how to write again. She said that she didn’t know where she would be without her therapists.”

McLeod said that those stories stuck with her.

“I was very close with her and I told her ‘One day grandmama, I’m going to grow up and I’m going to help people like they helped you,” McLeod said. “As I got older, I started looking into it more and more and I found out that I really did enjoy it. I volunteered for a time in therapy and I got to see different aspects of it, in-patient, out-patient, pediatrics, wound care, aquatics. By the time I was in high school, I put my nose to the grind to get my grades up so I could go to the college that I wanted to go to and get into PT school.”

McLeod began her higher education at Francis Marion before applying to PT school.

“When I applied, we had to do a full-day interview with a panel,” she said. “It was very stressful and I left there thinking I didn’t know if I was going to get in or not because there was a ton of people applying and there was a waiting list from the year before. I got in my first time so I felt like that was a sign.”

After graduation, McLeod worked in the medical setting for six years before transitioning to the school setting so she could have a schedule more similar to her children; she has worked in Florence 1 for seven years.

A lot of referrals the district’s physical therapists receive are for birth-related things like cerebral palsy, spina bifida or Down Syndrome, McLeod said. Orthopedic cases are rarer but she has seen referrals for them as well.

“Most of our kids are seen once-a-week for thirty minutes,” McLeod said. “We also do a lot of communication with teachers and classroom assistants. We want to work with the staff so they can carry over the same cues that we use in therapy. We don’t want to pull kids out of class any more than we need to so that carry over is really important. For instance, if we have a toe walker we have cues we use like heels down, feet flat.”

McLeod said that teletherapy has changed some of the ways physical therapy normally takes place.

“They don’t teach you how to do tele-therapy in school, they may start doing that from now on, so that has been a big adjustment for us,” McLeod said. “I tell parents that they are not a therapist but they are doing a therapeutic exercise and they are doing the best that they can with what we are giving them and based on what they have. We had to get creative so we had them use things like couch cushions, step stools in the kitchen, balls and sidewalk chalk. You have to find out what they have and then make a plan around that so they are meeting the student’s school-based needs while at home.”

One positive, McLeod said, is parents having more opportunities to see some of the ‘wins’ that they may not normally see.

“It is neat seeing the parents do something with their child, the child getting it for the first time and seeing the excitement on their face because they are the ones who helped them do it,” McLeod said. “They get excited, the child gets excited and we get excited because that is a bonding moment for those parents. A lot of time they are taking their child to get therapy to get help but now they are the ones who are actually helping the child reach that goal. Sometimes parents struggle to know how to help their child so to be able to see so much joy and so much success has been neat.”