Part of the job of a physical therapist is asking patients about their goals.
“I can’t arbitrarily make up goals if that’s not what is important to them,” says Dr. Kelly Oschwald ’12. “I’m focusing the treatment on what’s important to the patient.”
What about Oschwald’s goals for herself?
“I want to follow the patient’s journey, not just see them once or every few months. I truly like working with people through their rehab journey,” she says.
The alumna from UNC Greensboro’s School of Health and Human Sciences is now providing that kind of holistic care in Pinehurst, North Carolina as an orthopedic and pelvic health therapist, treating the muscles that are part of the human body’s core.
Finding her perfect fit
Oschwald’s journey began in Sylva, a town of about 2,600 people west of Asheville in the North Carolina mountains. She and a friend decided together that a city like Greensboro would be a good place to transition into higher education, without being overwhelmed by the big city atmosphere of Charlotte or Raleigh.
She chose kinesiology as it could form the foundation for a health career. She played in intramural sports and worked at the Kaplan Center for Wellness. She won the UNCG Campus Recreation Above and Beyond Award and was admitted to the Golden Chain and Golden Key Honor Societies.
“I had one semester with 21 credits that they had to sign off on,” she says. “Part of that is my drive to see if I can do it.”
It took her about a year as an undergraduate to narrow down the field she wanted to pursue. To make that decision, she shadowed athletic trainers and physical therapists. She studied alongside classmates working to become physician assistants or to enter other realms of medicine.
She gained a lot of confidence from her advisor and kinesiology professor, Dr. Aaron Terranova. “He was a strong advocate for continuing on and understanding the competitiveness of getting into school,” she says. “He had a passion for teaching and for the human body. He was a great teacher.”
Finding the right career
Kinesiology students may go on to become therapists, athletic trainers, physical educators, strength trainers, and more. All must be educated in how the human body moves and interacts with the environment. One of Terranova’s tasks as the department’s director of undergraduate studies is to clear up the misconceptions about a little-known field.
“Many students think it’s just about playing basketball, running around, being physically active,” he says. “But your patients and your clients don’t care if you know the lifetime batting average of Babe Ruth. They don’t care if you can personally run a four-minute mile. They care that you can treat their injury.”
And just as a good teacher guides a student, a good student guides the teacher. Terranova says Oschwald’s understanding of the material served as a barometer to his effectiveness in the classroom.
“You pick out a few students,” he explains, “If you’re not teaching a subject well, you know it because those students are looking at you, like ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’ That’s when I know I need to back up and revisit that topic. She was one of those students.”
After seeing Oschwald’s drive at UNCG, Terranova knew she would succeed at whatever field she chose, but she’s the first student he’s known to pursue pelvic floor therapy.
“That was fantastic to hear,” he says. “That affects a bigger percentage of the population than we realize. I’m so glad that she was able to find her way to that subdiscipline.”
Oschwald first became an orthopedic manual therapist. After referring several patients to a therapist 30 minutes away to treat their pelvic health needs, she decided to get the required training and provide the therapy herself.
The pelvic floor muscles are attached to the pelvic bone and help stabilize the core. They support the bowels and reproductive organs. Common health problems center around bowel and bladder function, sexual function, pelvic pain, childbirth, pelvic organ prolapse, and pre- and postpartum difficulties.
Oschwald recognizes how society has connected embarrassment to these health challenges. She seeks to reframe the way pelvic health is understood and discussed. It’s no different from therapy for any other part of the body.
“The treatment should be inclusive, not isolating,” she says. “I have to make people feel like they are heard, and also that they’re not the only people who might have these symptoms. Other people have experienced them, and they’re not alone.”
It’s just one more way her holistic approach provides reassurance and a path to wellness.
“You can’t just see a person as a body part or an injury; you have to look at a person as a whole,” says Oschwald.
Terranova’s advice to any kinesiology student is to seek out professionals in therapy and sports medicine, and find out what they like and what they don’t like about their work.
“Go to different settings,” he says. “A hospital, an outpatient setting, maybe a facility that specializes in adolescence versus geriatric versus pediatrics. Talk to them, observe them, and walk a mile in their shoes.”
Internships through UNCG also connect students with those professionals. Terranova says the department’s relationship with hospitals in the North Carolina Piedmont means they can quickly begin to network. “You can talk to people from all over these health care centers, and they can say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a job over here. We have an assistant or an aide position.'”
Oschwald is in the process of starting her own practice in Raleigh. She took an offer from one of her peers to work at Restore Physiotherapy in Pinehurst. It proved to be a good fit for her as she gets more one-on-one time with patients.
“You go into the profession because you want to help people,” she says. “That’s why I stepped out on my own and decided to go this out-of-network route. I feel like I can help people more effectively than when I was seeing a lot of patients in one day.”
Wherever the future takes her, she’s happy with what she’s done so far.
“Success for me is fulfillment in what I’m doing,” she says. “It’s what I’m providing as a therapist and as a business owner.”
Story by Janet Imrick, University Communications
Photography courtesy of Dr. Kelly Oschwald
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