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Arnold School of Public Health

Family tragedy leads student to two Arnold School degrees, career in physical therapy

August 13, 2021 | Erin Bluvas,

When Jennifer Heiser’s dad had a massive stroke, it changed everything. The Madison, Wisconsin-based family moved to South Carolina, and Heiser spent the next 10 years as a part-time student, part-time professional and part-time caregiver. She also found her calling: physical therapy.

“I wanted to maximize my time with him, so I often attended his therapy sessions,” Heiser says. “After seeing the impact physical therapy had for my dad and for my family as a whole, I decided to pursue a career as a physical therapist.”

Heiser’s father wasn’t expected to survive the week following his stroke, but he did. Then he wasn’t expected to live more than two years, but he did. Nineteen-year-old Heiser took time off from school and moved to Columbia’s warm climate with her parents. Her dad  had always thought about retiring in the Palmetto state, and it took several years and lots of help from friends and family to make it happen. She worked various jobs (mostly in health and fitness) while taking courses toward her bachelor’s degree in exercise science and caring for her dad and then later her mom, who also experienced poor health.

My path to becoming a physical therapist wasn’t smooth or easy, but I think my experiences allow me to truly empathize with my patients and their families.

-Jennifer Heiser, 2021 Doctor of Physical Therapy

By Heiser’s 2018 graduation, both of her parents had passed away and she was working several jobs to make ends meet. She taught dance and yoga, served as a respite care provider and personal care assistant, and worked as a therapeutic recreation assistant for individuals with a range of disabilities.

It was a natural transition to enroll in her department’s Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program that fall. She was drawn to the program’s emphasis on research as well as its small class size and stellar graduation outcomes (e.g., first-time pass rate for the licensing exam). After years of holding numerous jobs and caregiving rolls – in and out of school depending on her family’s changing health needs – Heiser was fully immersed in the fast-paced, close-knit graduate program.

In parallel with her coursework and clinical rotations, Heiser conducted research in clinical associate professor Alicia Flach’s Rehabilitation Lab and associate professor Jill Stewart’s Motor Behavior and Neuroimaging Lab. Flach and Stewart, along with the other DPT instructors, became important mentors for Heiser, whose own interests focused on stroke rehabilitation and promoting physical activity and inclusion among individuals with lifelong disabilities (e.g., autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, down syndrome) and those who experience disabilities later in life (e.g., spinal cord injury, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis).

After graduating this month, Heiser will work as a clinical physical therapist while looking into additional training through a neurologic residency. Long term, she would like to pursue a Ph.D. in Exercise Science to continue conducting research, particularly in the areas of patient advocacy and advancement of the field.

“My path to becoming a physical therapist wasn’t smooth or easy, but I think my experiences allow me to truly empathize with my patients and their families,” Heiser says. “I could not have gotten to where I am now without my friends, family, research partners, mentors and DPT classmates.”

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