The Parkinson’s disease that rocked Roland Morin’s balance and shrank his movement seemed to ease as he stepped into a hallway at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston campus.
Morin knew that his aide — Master of Occupational Therapy student Kelsey Covert — would help him if he teetered. He smiled and leaned forward as Covert followed, gently steadying him with her hands at his waist.
They reached the hall’s end again and again.
“I am seeing improvement,” Covert said later. “And it’s so rewarding.”
Her experience is part of a new initiative aimed at giving the occupational therapy students authentic, real-world experience in the field while still being guided by faculty.
Eventually, all of the popular program’s 70-plus students will get the chance to be part of a new free clinic at the campus. Working with Lewiston-area physicians and therapists, the just-created USM-LAC Community Clinic will offer specialized therapy to people who either have no insurance or have exhausted their benefits.
In this first case, three students who have been certified in the Parkinson’s treatment protocol known as “LSVT Big” are working with two men with the disease. For them, the disease created the misperception that they are moving regularly when their actual movement has been reduced. Sometimes their footsteps have faded to shuffles.
“We teach the men to think big,” said Mary Anderson, the clinic's coordinator and a lecturer in the program. “We work with them on big, exaggerated movements.” The protocol calls for four weeks of therapy. They began improving in just days.
Morin, who traveled the 45 minutes from his home in Livermore to Lewiston, said he was grateful.
“It’s a haul but it’s worth it,” he said. “This is extremely beneficial.”
For Anderson and the clinic, the work is just getting started. By Spring, she hopes to have many more people — adults and children — at the clinic.
It’s something she’s wanted for the program since her arrival at USM in 2015.
The change has been done with little cost. Lewiston-Auburn College moved its writing center to a corner of its library and Occupational Therapy moved in. One segment includes a variety of child-oriented equipment, donated by Anderson from the private clinic she previously ran. Other tools, including an Ultrasound machine, are on the way.
“We’ll be able to run the gamut with pediatrics: sensory integration therapy, fine motor skills training and social skills training,” Anderson said.
The program has already proved popular, drawing far more applicants than can be admitted. Anderson believes the clinic will make the program even more sought after, for both incoming students and employers.
“I believe it will help graduates find work in the field,” Anderson said. Part of that is the clinic’s creation, which was led by an eight-student group.
“These students who are here are developing programs,” she said. “They are looking at policies and procedures. They are doing so many of the inner workings, I think it’s going to make them highly competitive out there in the workforce.”
It’s a growing field. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of jobs for occupational therapists is projected to grow 21 percent during the decade from 2016 to 2026.
At the same time, students enter the field to help people. And the clinic is charging no one.
“What’s really great about this is we’re not billing any insurance,” Anderson said. “It’s student led, student-run and pro-bono.”
Student Rita Goodwin, who worked alongside Covert with Mr. Morin, said she was grateful for the chance to work with a patient. She put a lot of lectures and reading to the test.
“It’s a great opportunity, right here on our campus,” she said. “It’s hands on. You don’t get this in the classroom.”
Story by Dan Hartill with photos by Alan Bennett, Office of Public Affairs