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Teachable Movement

July 2008


When St. Ambrose physical therapy professor Michael Puthoff tells his students a story, they sit—according to the nomination letters written for Puthoff’s selection as 2008 Graduate Professor of the Year—"at the edge of their chairs." The stories are usually about patients who are in serious trouble, patients who can’t walk or maybe even sit up. The stories are about people who have lost hope.

Puthoff’s passion is to help turn people's lives around, and then bring their stories—along with scholarly research and methodology—back to the classroom to help students learn how to do the same thing.

People such as Shirley (not her real name), a patient of his who had battled pancreatitis for months and was in terrible shape. Her once-excellent health had been robbed by the systemic disease that had nearly killed her. She couldn't walk without help, and getting out of a chair took all the strength she had. At only 52 years old, the patient could no longer do the everyday things most people take for granted: run to the mall, drive across town to visit a friend, or work on her hobbies.

"She had been in bed for months," says Puthoff who, as with nearly all Ambrose physical therapy faculty, sees patients off-campus every week. "Before her disease, she had been in excellent health and quite mobile. But her deconditioning was so extreme that her goal was simply to walk to the car."

That’s typical for someone who has endured long-term bed rest, he says. "Bed rest robs your body of strength very quickly. In just one day, you'll start to lose blood volume and your muscles will begin to atrophy. You can lose one percent of your strength in a day or two. For a young person, it's not noticeable. But for a sick patient, it can mean the difference between being mobile and not."

Just a couple of years ago, Puthoff shares with his students, a patient with these issues would likely have been released and told to continue her exercises at a slow pace to avoid injury. Today, however, Shirley's first, slow steps were not her final ones in therapy. Instead, she was prescribed a high-velocity exercise program.

This different approach comes by way of findings from research done in part by Puthoff himself. "Research shows that it is critically important to add exercises that improve the speed at which muscles work," he says. "The formula is, speed multiplied by strength equals 'muscle power.' Having muscle power allows you to walk across the street quickly, or stomp on the brake of the car, or regain your footing when you trip over something. So we encouraged Shirley to walk and do prescribed exercises faster."

This synergy between research, teaching and practice has produced outstanding results, as well. "In just four years, Mike has established several topics of scholarly inquiry that are making a difference both in the classroom and with patients," says Sandy Cassady, physical therapy professor and director of the DPT program at St. Ambrose. "His research into the role of muscle performance, functional assessment and methods of physical activity monitoring have been important."

Especially to Shirley, who now not only walks to her car, but also drives it.

And while Puthoff says he is honored to be named Graduate Professor of the Year, what he finds most gratifying is how the honor underlines his sense of mission.

"I love working with patients, but I especially love teaching," he says. "When I’m in the classroom, I feel I’m where I’m supposed to be."

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