Editor’s note: This magazine story was written and edited before March 2020. We regret that the COVID-19 pandemic delayed its publication until now, but we’re happy to finally share it with you.
Ten years ago this summer, 49 students joined the first class of Lynchburg’s first doctoral program. The Doctor of Physical Therapy program was the first wave of an experiment: How a liberal arts college could stretch itself and create new graduate health science programs.
Today, health sciences are a well-known strength of the University of Lynchburg, with programs for physician assistants, athletic trainers, and public health workers, in addition to physical therapists. Lynchburg has hundreds of graduates from doctoral and master’s programs in health sciences.
University leaders often credit these programs with helping the institution grow and thrive. But what are they doing for the world beyond Lynchburg?
To answer that question, we asked several DPT and Doctor of Medical Science alumni to share their stories. From the shore of North Carolina to Hollywood, from a children’s hospital to a jail clinic, they share a passion for making patients well.
‘Health care where we were needed most’
Brian Ko ’19 DMSc couldn’t believe he was getting an Emmy.
“I thought it was a joke, all the way up until we walked the red carpet,” he said.
Ko and Kyle Vivo ’19 DMSc are physician assistants for the Los Angeles County Jail. In 2018, they were in a film about health care in the jail. That film, “Mission Possible: Social Justice Medicine Inside LA County Jail,” won a Los Angeles Area Emmy in 2019.
“It definitely was a surprising and cool event,” Ko said.
But more important than the Emmy is how the film attracted more providers to work in the jail. “Since that video was released, we’re almost fully staffed to run the urgent care 24 hours [each day],” Ko said. “A lot of people wanted to join after they saw the video. It had a huge impact.”
Between the two of them, Vivo found the jail first. Some of his clinical rotations for school were on Skid Row, a neighborhood that includes one of the largest homeless populations in the U.S. He enjoyed working there with other students who shared a mindset of service.
“We were not going to Newport Beach or Beverly Hills,” he said. “We wanted to do health care where we were needed the most.”
Other PAs on Skid Row invited Vivo to try a rotation in the jail’s clinic. In the end, he decided to make his career there.
Ko was working in the jail’s emergency room when he met Vivo, who invited him to work in the urgent care. Ko agreed, seeing he would learn a lot from Vivo.
“Kyle said that if I helped him in the new urgent care that the jail was trying to create, he would train me on a lot of procedures,” Ko said. “That sparked interest in me. Kyle is a great leader, and he walks the walk. If he says he’ll do something and commits to something, then he sticks to that plan.”
In the jail, Vivo and Ko treat patients from all walks of life. Disgraced movie stars. Former rap moguls. Gang members. Drug addicts. “People you see on the news,” Vivo said.
Sometimes, their patients come because they’ve been injured in a fight with other inmates. Sometimes, they are suffering from chronic conditions. Other times, they don’t actually need medical attention, but are looking for any opportunity to get out of their cell for a few minutes. Regardless of the reason, they give the patients respect.
“We treat them with human dignity,” Vivo said. “How would you like to be treated in the most vulnerable, worst times of your life? Whether you’re guilty or not guilty, that’s not for me to decide.”
Vivo said earning a doctoral degree was “the logical next step” for his career. “We’re supposed to be lifelong learners and always improve on our practices, and broaden our horizons. Since we’ve got really good training in the DMSc program, and the knowledge that we acquired there, we’re able to operate at the very top of our game.”
Science, fitness, movie stars
Jena Gatses ’15 DPT isn’t into long-term relationships, at least not when it comes to her work as a physical therapist and performance specialist. As she puts it, “I’m trying to make people not need me.”
Gatses, owner of Scientific Fitness, works with professional athletes, like NFL running back Saquon Barkley. Actors Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg are clients. She works with boxers, body builders, and Ironman triathletes.
In short, she works with people whose bodies are their jobs. “I make sure they’re better at their job than before they came to see me,” Gatses, who bounces between homes in North Carolina and California, said. “It’s skill-specific training, getting them to that elite level, where their body is not only moving correctly, but functioning correctly, and it maintains that after I’m gone.”
Typically, Gatses said, she sees clients just once or twice after an injury. She fixes the problem that brought them to her in the first place and educates them so it won’t happen again. “I’m big on that,” she said. “The more you teach people, the less likely they are to get hurt. … I want to educate you, so you can get rid of things.”
For four years, starting while she was in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at University of Lynchburg, Gatses kept NASCAR drivers and pit crews on the track. She was doing an internship with a fitness equipment company in North Carolina, when she met the athletic director for Joe Gibbs Racing, which has stock car and motocross teams.
He invited her to a NASCAR race in Richmond, as a sort of tryout — to “see if the guys like it,” Gatses said. After the race, the team asked her to come on full time. “People were raving about it,” she said. “They requested me at every race. They asked me to quit school. I said, ‘If I’m that good, you can wait for me.’”
Gatses stayed in school, but kept working with the race team on nights and weekends. After graduation, she became the first female coach and physical therapist in NASCAR. As she puts it, “I was working in the good old boy club.”
Despite her stellar debut in Richmond, working in the male-dominated racing industry took some getting used to. When she first started training the drivers, showing them exercises and drills that would improve their performance and prevent injuries, the initial reaction was, “You do it.”
So, she got the heavier weights she uses and did it. “I’m a lot stronger than a lot of them,” Gatses said. “Right away, it was instant respect and they did what I said.”
It didn’t take long before word of Gatses’ abilities began to spread. She started working with Wahlberg and Berg, and professional athletes started lighting up her phone.
“Everything I do is 100 percent word of mouth,” she said. “When you help people and care about other people, they care about you. They want to introduce you to their friends. … There’s never a shortage [of work].
“I’ve been asked, ‘How do you stay in business when you fix things so quickly?’ Word of mouth will always get me a job. … I’d rather fix that person and have them go brag and get new clients, so I can help and try to uncover their issues.”
Back on track (and field)
Richmond Letterio ’17 DPT, a physical therapist at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Norfolk, Virginia, applies his education and experience, as a physical therapist and a college athlete, to treat children and young adults with orthopedic sports injuries.
“I like the return-to-sport aspect the most,” Letterio said, “making sure kids are ready to go back to practices and games, and that they’re prepared for whatever they’re going to have to do on the field in practice.”
When he’s not at the hospital, Letterio can often be found at Virginia Wesleyan University, where he spends several hours a week coaching jumps and strength and conditioning for the track and field team.
As an undergraduate at Virginia Wesleyan, which competes in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference with Lynchburg, Letterio was a pole vaulter. After graduating in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation/recreation therapy, he coached for a couple of years before enrolling in Lynchburg’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program.
After graduating from the DPT program and moving back to the Virginia coast, Letterio accepted an invitation from VWU to start coaching again. In addition to working with the team’s jumpers and other athletes, coaching gives Letterio the opportunity to use what he learned in the DPT program and through his work as a physical therapist.
“I definitely use my PT skills unofficially with the team,” he said. “I have them come up to me during the week or during meets to check different things out. Usually in a capacity where they want to know if it is safe to keep training.
“I also use the knowledge I learned in the DPT program to boost my track knowledge. Knowing the exercise physiology and biomechanics helps me with program design and understanding the mechanics of the events.”
Last semester, Dr. Anissa Davis, an assistant professor in Lynchburg’s DPT program, invited Letterio back to campus to speak to her second-year students about pediatric obesity, common orthopedic and sports injuries in children, and other pediatric issues.
“He did a great job providing students with a real-life perspective on pediatric clinical practice with children who are active in sports,” Davis said. “The DPT students enjoyed hearing from someone who had gone through the program, and found his presentation engaging, especially the discussion about current research on early sport specialization.
“Richmond is just a wonderful person and I’m so proud to see him doing something he is passionate about. He really loves his job, and it shows. I know he is an excellent clinician and I look forward to seeing what the future holds for him.”
Brandon Whittington and Maya Ramos-Allen, 2015 graduates of Lynchburg’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program, get asked this question a lot: Why did you call your PT business Level Up?
The married couple, who launched Level Up Physical Therapy in April of 2018, are both avid video gamers — so ardent, in fact, that they initially designed their Calabash, North Carolina, clinic using the building game Minecraft. But there was more to it than that.
“It also had a dual meaning, toward balance and reaching the ‘next level’ of function,” Whittington said. “It also suggested we were a level above other PT clinics. Our model and design, I believe, does provide optimal care, and research supports that consistency of care and less delegation to support staff does result in better outcomes for patients.”
It was a head injury, albeit a mutual friend’s, that sparked the couple’s interest in physical therapy. Whittington and Ramos-Allen were students at Old Dominion University, where they met and earned their bachelor’s degrees, when one of their friends fell 50 feet from a lighthouse and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
When they visited their friend, who was in a coma, they were confused to see a hospital employee pinching him. “At the time, I didn’t even know this person was a physical therapist,” Whittington said.
“I asked why my friend was being pinched and she [said] it’s done to determine the level of coma and responsiveness to noxious stimuli. I could not do anything, however I admired that a physical therapist could help my friend. I then further explored physical therapy following this experience and really liked it.”
After graduating from Lynchburg, Whittington and Ramos-Allen spent two and a half years working at a South Hill, Virginia, clinic before deciding to open their own practice. At Level Up, they incorporated some things the South Hill clinic was doing — private treatment rooms and one-on-one sessions — but added the idea that patients would see the same PT on every visit.
Whittington said it all comes down to the patient experience. “You can take the best chef in the world and place them in a fast food restaurant and you will not get a world class meal,” he said. “The environment means that much in physical therapy as well.
“We offer one-on-one sessions with the same doctor of physical therapy each session. There are no technicians, assistants, or aides, and there is no double booking. We offer large, private treatment rooms, for privacy. The consistency of care and environment leads to faster and more complete recovery.”
Another thing that sets Whittington and Ramos-Allen apart is their special interest in balance therapy. As PTs in a resort area, populated with lots of retirees, a large percentage of their patients are older adults, who can be more prone to falling than younger people.
While they treat people of all ages with all sorts of injuries and conditions, helping people literally stay on their feet has become a priority for the couple. “Falling is a leading cause of death and disability for aging adults,” Whittington said.
“There are many staggering statistics regarding falls and most are preventable. The creativity and ability to literally save a patient from potentially life-altering injuries or death is unique in outpatient PT to balance physical therapy.”
Ramos-Allen added, “Another reason we love to specialize in balance therapy is that we feel there is a lack of focus in this area, despite a high need for this treatment in our aging population and for those with neurological conditions.”