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Accident gives DPT student new perspective on patient care

by Luanne Williams

Third-year physical therapy student Anne Throckmorton was facing a complex rehab case last spring: traumatic brain injury, collapsed lung, four broken ribs, broken leg and injury to a facial nerve. And the lead physical therapist was asking her to suggest next steps.

“What do you think we need to work on today?”

That she knew the answer thrilled Throckmorton. It meant that the accident that left her hospitalized for eight days and in a rehab center for another 10 hadn’t robbed her of what she’d learned the past two years.

A Pennsylvania native with a passion for helping people overcome pain, Throckmorton flipped her car on I-485 in January, suffering life-threatening injuries. Amazingly, not only did she survive, but she was able to make up missed classwork, participate in the next round of clinicals in July and stay on track to graduate with her peers in December. 

Having her therapist challenge her to take a role in her own treatment plan was one of many steps toward recovery.

“She worked so hard and made it back to campus and clinic after only a few months,” said DPT Director Dr. Karen Friel. “Wingate DPT focuses on building grit and resilience in our students, and Anne is truly emblematic of those ideals. She has faced tremendous challenges head-on with grace and humility. Having her return to the classroom in the middle of a pandemic and find success in her final clinical education experiences has been one of the absolute joys of my academic career.”

The accident

Anne Throckmorton lies in a hospital bed after her car accident.

Throckmorton remembers very little about the day of the accident, only that she had finished a Saturday shift in her third week of clinicals in Huntersville around 4 p.m. and headed toward her Matthews apartment. Her next memory is waking up five days later at Atrium-Main in Charlotte. Witnesses say her vehicle careened across the highway, flipping twice before coming to a stop. 

“We don’t know what happened,” Throckmorton says. “All we can think of is maybe I turned around to get something out of my bag, which was in the back, and realized I had crossed out of my lane and then overcorrected, causing me to flip.”

As a constant stream of visitors (including Wingate faculty members and classmates) came and went, Throckmorton knew who she was and recognized others, but wasn’t sure about where she was. When asked, one time she said Disney World, another time China. But even before she got her bearings, she was concerned about missing class.

“I don’t remember asking this, but my fiance said I kept wanting to know what was happening with school,” she says.

After the Jan. 25 accident, she spent three days in ICU and another five on a step-down unit before being transferred to Carolinas Rehabilitation for inpatient care.

Anne Throckmorton in a car headed home after inpatient rehab.

Physical therapists worked with her on gait training and helped treat her vertigo, a common head-injury symptom; occupational therapists helped her work on daily tasks such as showering.

“There was some light strengthening, but mainly all my therapy was very functional,” Throckmorton says. And much of it was fast-tracked because she already knew what to do. 

“My main physical therapist, she had actually taught a guest lecture in one of my classes, so I recognized her,” Throckmorton says. “She would quiz me, challenging me that way, asking me what I thought we needed to work on next.”

Just as she was beginning to feel more like herself again and looking forward to returning to class in mid-March, Covid-19 hit and instruction shifted to online. Although discouraged, she soon realized that the online format had its benefits.

“Being on the computer a lot was tough initially, and at the end of the first week, I was exhausted. But being home I could listen to a lecture for two hours and then rest when needed,” Throckmorton says. “Dr. (Tyler) Shultz told me, ‘I know you wanted to come back, but this will be better for you to go at your own pace.’ By July, I realized he was right.”

Back in the field

A physical therapy student looks on as a patient pushes a ball up a wall.

She headed into the field for another round of clinicals, this time at Novant’s Waxhaw Family & Sports Medicine. That’s where two things became apparent: first, that rehabilitation is truly a roller-coaster; and second, that her own ordeal would help her encourage others to endure the ride.

“I really didn’t know how much I was going to struggle,” Throckmorton says. “The first day I felt good, but by that Wednesday I started to feel really overwhelmed. I thought, I don’t think I can do this. There were tears and phone calls to Dr. Woodrow (Karen Woodrow, director of clinical education for Wingate’s DPT program). I kept thinking, I was feeling so good. What happened?” She had found herself in front of a patient who needed treatment for neck pain. And she was drawing a blank, suddenly unable to think about what exercises to begin with.

That’s when professors and Dr. Anthony Walker, who was supervising her field work, stepped in to remind her that she needed to be patient with herself as her brain continued to heal.

“I can go on and on about faculty and classmates, how supportive they have been,” Throckmorton says. “Also, because of being online because of Covid, a lot of us students struggled coming back to the clinic. So, it made me realize I was not quite as alone as I thought.”

She said Dr. Walker knew when to be patient with her and when to push. “He kept reminding me that I had the knowledge, and he helped me build confidence with it,” she said.

When mid-August rolled around and she was nervous and upset about still having so much to do to finish school, it was Walker who helped her refocus.

Anne Throckmorton is pictured with staff members at a practice in Waxhaw where she completed a clinical rotation.

“He told me, ‘You can easily keep looking ahead and worrying, but what will help you most is to focus on these patients today, what you are doing right now. Each person that comes into the door is a new start,’” Throckmorton says.

Soon she found herself connecting more with patients, and she found she had a deeper empathy borne from her own ordeal.

“A lot of us who go into PT have had physical therapy before for something like a knee injury, but this recovery was completely different,” she says. “Psychologically, there was so much going on. I always knew my ’why’ for going into PT was that I wanted to help people live pain free and the best way possible. Now, more than that, I want them to realize in the midst of their situation that yeah, it sucks right now, but it will get better.”

She says when she tells patients that she knows a bit about what they are going through, they are appreciative.

“Patients have been receptive and I’ve enjoyed that. It’s almost like the insight I’ve gained from this experience is a gift that it has been given to me,” Throckmorton says. “The accident has changed my outlook on life in general. I could have sat there and felt sorry for myself, or I could see it as, ‘OK this happened. How can I move on and deal with it, and how can I come out of this a better person?’”

Find out more about Wingate's Doctor of Physical Therapy program.

Oct. 21, 2020