SRU physical therapy students and cerebral palsy patient learn together
From left, Slippery Rock University physical therapy graduate students Bayley Reddecliff from Pittsburgh, Shania Short from New Brighton and Kylie Stuck from Duke Center meet with Molly Merhaut, foreground, as part of an ongoing project where PT students gain practice treating people like Merhaut who have cerebral palsy.
April 1, 2021
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Students affectionately call it "The Molly Project." Sure, it is an assignment for Slippery Rock University students in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program. But it's much more than that. It's what makes Fridays Molly's favorite day of the week. It's an opportunity for students to think beyond a clinical diagnosis or whatever a professor could put on a syllabus or a PowerPoint slide. It's the human side of physical therapy.
"You're not just treating the disease, you're treating the person," said Dan Komoroski, a graduate student majoring in physical therapy from Cranberry Township. "We get to work with a patient who is presented with some of the pathologies and issues that we would see in a clinical setting, as opposed to working with your fellow classmates and simulating the disease."
The person is Molly Merhaut, a 26-year-old woman from Gibsonia, who is the daughter of Joe Merhaut, an SRU associate professor of special education. The disease is cerebral palsy, which is a group of disorders that affect a person's ability to move and maintain balance and posture. CP is caused by an abnormal development of the brain or damage to the developing brain that occurs before, during or shortly after birth.
Every Friday for four hours during the academic year, Molly Merhaut has worked with students in SRU's Neuromuscular classes, providing them with an opportunity to treat an individual with her form of CP. Merhaut has spastic quadriplegia, one of the most severe forms of CP that affects all four limbs, torso and face. She was born three months' premature, weighing only 1 pound, 6 ounces, and with multiple problems, including brain infections, while being hospitalized for the first six months of her life.
She's now 4-foot-2-inches and uses a powered-mobility wheelchair. She's also a "teacher" in the PT program, as each student in the Neuromuscular I and II classes is required to practice treatments for two hours during the semester.
"On paper, a diagnosis looks a lot worse than what you see in person," said Sydney Kern, a graduate student majoring in physical therapy from Dallas. "Molly can seem kind of intimidating at first, but then when you start to work with her, you see her as a person and you learn that you don't just categorize someone because of their disease."
Barbara Billek-Sawhney, professor of physical therapy, considers The Molly Project a thematic unit for her class.
"Molly's amazing, between her personality and what she's teaching them," Billek-Sawhney said. "She provides personal interaction, understanding of family dynamics and the environmental piece, such as the adaptive equipment that she's used to working with in her home. Students practice their interviewing skills and they do basic things like transferring her, working on different movements and measuring her balance."
Despite having such a severe form of CP and a mild intellectual disability, Molly Merhaut is able to communicate.
"Her social skills have just taken off since she's been coming here and she communicates so much better," Joe Merhaut said. "She's not afraid to ask questions or tell the students her needs, and the students really appreciate that."
"She's always smiling and she's very inquisitive," Komoroski said. "She always asks where your name tag is. That's a big thing. She wants to know your name."
Remembering every student's name that she's worked with would be difficult, however. Since she first started coming to SRU in 2013, Molly Merhaut was worked with nearly 400 different students.
"I love coming here so much," Molly Merhaut said. "Fridays are my favorite day."
Molly Merhaut was recommended to SRU by Judy Wagner, a physical therapist with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit assigned to Pine-Richland High School who identified the opportunity for Merhaut to come to SRU as part of her transition program that was initially contracted through Pine-Richland. Wagner, who has a relationship with SRU's PT Department as a guest lecturer and collaborator, believed the partnership would be a natural one, given the family connection to the University through Joe Merhaut's employment. The Molly Project then continued beyond transition program.
"Molly is the most delightful and welcoming person that one could know," Wagner said. "When she left high school, it was very important to her and to her family that she do something that was truly meaningful and contributory to others. Given the way that Molly relates so well to others, we just thought that this would be a perfect fit."
In addition to crediting the Merhaut family, Wagner commends Billek-Sawhney and the entire SRU PT Department for facilitating the partnership.
"This is not something that is typically done at most universities," Wagner said. "This is mutually beneficial to Molly and to the students, but it's not something that is easy to make happen. It requires tremendous effort, but it's so worthwhile."
Two SRU graduate assistants take turns supervising the sessions when the SRU students, often in groups of two, work with Molly, ensuring that they are meeting the requirements for the assignments, as well as performing the tasks safely. During the onset of the pandemic, Molly worked with students remotely but this year they meet in person at a physical therapy laboratory on campus.
In addition to the Neuromuscular classes taught by Billek-Sawhney and James Eng, associate professor of physical therapy, other classes have integrated students' experience with Molly into their coursework, including those related to cardiopulmonary, musculoskeletal and others.
"Whether the students are working in pediatrics or neurological rehab, they're going to see somebody like Molly," Billek-Sawhney said. "We can't just have 10 children with CP come in. Molly is an important link."
"This gives us the experience and framework to build off of for when we go into a clinical setting," Komoroski said.
CP is a non-progressive condition, meaning it doesn't get worse, but because of The Molly Project, everyone is getting better.
"Molly has maintained and improved a lot of her physical skills through this program," Joe Merhaut said. "The insurance doesn't pay for physical therapy anymore, because they'll say it doesn't make a difference, but I'll tell you what, it does make a difference here. This has just been a win-win."
More information about the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at SRU is available on the department webpage.
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