Pictured above is Gretchen Sanchez, administrative assistant for HPU’s Pro Bono Physical Therapy Clinic and food pantry.
The patients come to cure their chronic pain. When they arrive, they realize they can get something just as essential: They receive the food they need.
They’re invited into the clinic’s food pantry after their visit and select healthy choices for their own home. They’ll find a refrigerator that keeps fresh the vegetables picked from the clinic’s community garden out back, and they’ll see shelves full of binders, toothbrushes, peanut butter and bags of pinto beans.
They are the patients of the Pro Bono Physical Therapy Clinic, run by the Department of Physical Therapy at High Point University. For them, the food pantry has become vital. What they select helps them save money and feed their family.
Gretchen Sanchez, the clinic’s administrative assistant, hears their stories. She also hears their thanks. They’re grateful, humble and even effusive at times.
“You have no idea how much this helps us,” a woman responded.
“The food pantry means everything to us,” a man told Sanchez. “It helps us have the essentials and knocks down our grocery costs.”
“So many of our patients have labor intensive jobs, and a healthy, pain-free body means everything,” says Sanchez, a 2014 HPU graduate. “This place gives people their lives again.”
The Impact of One Question
HPU’s Pro Bono Clinic sets its Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program apart from others nationwide.
It’s the only full-time clinic of its kind in the country. Patients can come in without having insurance or seeing a doctor, and since opening in December 2017, the clinic has seen more than 700 patients. Many of the patients who come illustrate the growing diversity of North Carolina.
They speak 18 different languages and come from 35 different countries. At the clinic, HPU’s graduate students earning a doctorate in physical therapy take care of them.
Under the guidance of local licensed physical therapists and Dr. Garrett Naze, the clinician at the clinic, small teams of DPT graduate students see patients. They spend one day a week at the clinic for three semesters before they start full-time clinic rotations nationwide.
PT students learn to treat more than just pain. They learn to listen. In turn, they learn the importance of what HPU physical therapy professor Dr. Alicia Emerson, the clinic director, calls “treating the whole patient.”
Reserved for the clinic’s patients, the food pantry helps them eat healthier. A poor diet leads to poor health leads to more stress-related illnesses, Emerson says.
“If we can help them get the food they need,” she says, “we can take that stress off the table and help people’s lives get better. And when we do, we’re empowering our patients because this is not a hand-out. It’s an assist to help them get back on track to taking care of themselves.”
Claire Love, a PT doctoral student at HPU, found out what Emerson meant with one simple question she asked the patients she saw.
“Would you like to visit our food pantry?”
They did. She remembers one. Love helped a woman work on her balance following her stroke. After her hour-long clinic visit, the woman and her 4-year-old son perused the pantry’s shelves to get what they needed.
“Wherever I end up, I need to try my best to understand what my community needs,” says Love, a third-year student from Lexington, South Carolina. “I want them to get well, but I want to make sure I meet their needs.”
This fall, Love’s clinic rotation finds her in Charlotte at two acute-care centers. In January, her next rotation takes her to San Diego, where she will work in an outpatient clinic. In April, she’ll graduate from HPU with the knowledge of what the pro bono clinic has given her.
“We were the people providing care to the High Point community, but the High Point community was allowing us to learn,” she says. “They’ll probably be the best teachers we’ll ever have.”
Learning to Listen
Those lessons resonate with Love and her classmates.
Mary Foresman Mahon, a third-year PT doctoral student from El Paso, Texas, worked with an unemployed woman between jobs. Like Love, Mahon told her about the food pantry, and the woman got excited –– but not about the food. She got excited about the binders.
“She had a job fair coming up, and she asked me, ‘Can I have this? It’ll be great to hold my resume,’” says Mahon, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve. “I had never really thought how a binder, something really simple, could make that big of an impact. But it really can when you ask yourself, ‘Do I buy rice, or do I buy a binder?’
“It reinforces the fact that you’re treating the whole person, and there are other things you need to be concerned about.”
Mahon, a daughter of a retired Army general, finds herself in a familiar environment for both her and her husband, Army Capt. Graham Foresman. They’re in Fort Bliss, Texas, and her rotation has her at an outpatient rehabilitation clinic.
Her classmate, Lauren Chandler, a former lacrosse player at Hofstra University, finds herself in a familiar environment, too. She’s in Phoenix, working in an outpatient sports clinic for athletes of all ages.
Like Mahon, Chandler remembers her patients.
For months, she worked with a 65-year-old woman who had a torn rotator cuff in her right shoulder. Chandler helped her recover. She also listened to the woman talk about her life.
Chandler realized her profession is 10 percent physical, 90 percent therapy. She also saw firsthand what the clinic’s community garden can do. The woman took home peppers and tomatoes, zucchini and squash. The vegetables, Chandler discovered, weren’t just to eat.
“I think it helped her heal,” says Chandler, a third-year PT doctoral student from Philadelphia. “She saw it as a symbol of healing from the clinic, and it was something she could take home with her.”
Those moments, Chandler says, helped strengthen what she calls her “empathy muscle.”
“At first, they are just a name on a paper in front of you, but you have to learn to listen and that helps them feel better because they know they’re being heard,” she says. “That is the skill I worked on at the pro bono clinic.”
The Beauty of Bees
The 13 garden plots behind the clinic grow all kinds of vegetables.
In September 2019, HPU students helped build the garden’s raised beds. This past summer, the Rev. Richard Payne helped clean everything up. He bought wholesale fertilizer and vegetable plants and got the beds ready for what he hoped would be a bountiful harvest.
By the end of the summer, the garden had produced 800 pounds of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and squash. He’s now planting broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and other greens for the winter. Payne is doing all that along with volunteers from HPU’s athletic teams. They call him “Preacher.”
“I’m a farm boy,” says Payne, the volunteer chaplain for the HPU Athletics. “I grew up messing in the dirt. God leads me into these things. I can’t go into something half-heartedly.”
Payne also keeps bees. He and his wife, Toye, have their 20 hives at their 100-acre farm in High Point.
He’s helped Dr. Dan Erb, HPU’s senior vice president for academic affairs, hone his own passion for beekeeping. Erb is a physical therapist and founding dean of the Congdon School of Health Sciences, which houses HPU’s physical therapy program.
Erb has his two hives at the clinic’s community garden. The food pantry expects to have honey from the hives next summer.
“The end product of the bees will benefit someone I don’t know, and that’s the greatest thing you can do,” Erb says. “Improve the quality of life of someone else – that should be expected of all of us.”
‘A Picture of What Healthcare Should Be’
The clinic draws HPU undergraduates like Jenna Tomlinson, a junior exercise science major from Raleigh.
She works as a PT aide. She screens patients for COVID and checks their blood pressure. She also stocks the pantry shelves and washes the vegetables she picks from the garden before placing them in the refrigerator for the patients to select.
Tomlinson expected clinical work –– but not her time in the food pantry. But that got her busy.
As secretary of HPU’s Athletic Training Club, she organized her own food drive. A few weekends ago when she went home, she brought back canned goods for the pantry, courtesy of her mom.
She knows why. She met a woman in her 50s on her first visit to the clinic. The woman didn’t know she could receive food for her and her husband. When she found out, she told Tomlinson repeatedly, “Thank you so much. This is amazing.”
That comment says everything about what Tomlinson has learned from the clinic.
“It’s opened my eyes to see people not for what they have,” she says, “but what I can do to help them.”
The clinic has opened
’s eyes as well.
Tkach is a 2020 HPU graduate in exercise science from Mocksville, North Carolina, and she worked for nearly a year as a PT aide. Like Tomlinson, she handed patients bags of food and heard about their life. Those moments still stick with her.
“That is a picture of what health care should be,” says Tkach, now an incoming graduate PT student at Winston-Salem State University. “It’s not just going in there and doing the basics. You’re assessing the needs of your community and finding ways to meet those needs.”
HPU: A Giving Place
On a recent Monday in September, Sanchez saw a PT aide bring in boxes and plastic bags full of food.
The clinic’s week-long food drive brought in 400 pounds of donations from HPU staff, faculty and students. The donations came at the best time. The pantry had become woefully low during the global pandemic. From March until September, the clinic’s patients picked up 2,000 pounds of food –– double the amount from the year before.
So, when Sanchez saw box after box, bag after bag, she had one thought.
“We’re going to be OK.”