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Arnold School of Public Health

December graduate makes UofSC and Doctor of Physical Therapy program a family tradition

December 11, 2020 | Erin Bluvas,

Coming to Carolina for her undergraduate degree was an easy decision for Kelly Shepherd. The Lexington, South Carolina native not only grew up just down the road, but she hails from a long line of Gamecocks. Her sister, her mom, and her grandparents are all UofSC alumni.

It was tougher for the biological sciences major to decide where to go for graduate school. Should she stick with UofSC or branch out? Shepherd spent 2017 making up her mind while working as a rehabilitation technical at a pediatric physical therapy clinic.

She did her homework – visiting other schools and researching her options – before making her decision to enroll in the Department of Exercise Science’s Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. Shepherd’s sister, Jessica, was a 2015 graduate of the program and had a wonderful experience. The small class size and format of the clinical side of the program sealed the deal for the younger sibling.

Helping patients achieve independence is probably the coolest part of being a physical therapist.

-Kelly Shepherd, Doctor of Physical Therapy 2020

Physical therapy appealed to Shepherd, who had always been physically active and appreciated the opportunity to work in a variety of settings. She also liked getting to know patients as individuals with specific goals.

“Helping patients achieve independence is probably the coolest part of being a physical therapist,” Shepherd says. “From a five-year-old who wants to run around with their friends or an older patient who wishes to live on their own, it’s really nice to see people meeting their goals.”

During her program, Shepherd’s clinical placements gave her the opportunity to follow patients with neurological diagnoses (e.g., stroke, traumatic brain injury) from their early treatment in inpatient rehabilitation to further along in their recovery at an outpatient facility. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she even had the chance to help them participate in community outings with their families.

“It was a really neat experience to see patients getting back to their prior interests and activities,” she says.

Shepherd was able to pair her own interests (e.g., outdoor activities such as biking, running, backpacking) with her education by partnering with clinical professor Paul Beattie. In addition to assisting Beattie with his anatomy class, Shepherd also helped him teach wilderness first aid to Boy Scouts and their leaders.

“The courses involved in-class instruction as well as scenarios in the field with fake blood and injuries,” she says. “It was a great experience combining my interests in public health and the outdoors.”

On the research side, Shepherd worked with associate professor Jill Stewart and classmates Sean Buitendorp and Becca Hamod to examine the reliability of Diffusion Tensor Imaging-derived measures of the structural integrity of connections between the two primary motor cortices in patients in the chronic phase of stroke recovery. This specialized form of MRI measures water diffusion rates which can be used by researchers to quantify the structural integrity of specific tracts in the brain.

It was a really neat experience to see patients getting back to their prior interests and activities.

-Kelly Shepherd, Doctor of Physical Therapy 2020

Although she’s keeping an open mind, the December graduate would like to continue working with patients who have neurological disorders. She credits her clinical experiences along with her research and training with Stewart, clinical assistant professor Alicia Flach and DPT alumna/adjunct instructor Kaci Handlery for sparking her interest in the field. Shepherd is also grateful for the commitment and enthusiasm of her cohort of students and the DPT and exercise science faculty and staff for making the program a wonderful experience – despite the challenges that emerged with the pandemic.

“I really appreciate the efforts of our program director, Stacy Fritz, and the faculty and staff to make the best out of a complicated situation with COVID this year,” she says. “I know a lot of work went on behind the scenes to make the last few months as smooth as possible and to ensure that we graduated on time. Also, a huge thanks to my classmates who made PT school an amazing experience.”

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