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LEAPing forward

Posted 9:57 a.m. Thursday, June 6, 2024

Walter Van Roo, of La Crosse, walks around the UWL Fieldhouse track with physical therapy student Casey Breunig, a volunteer for the LEAP program. Breunig was hooked after his first session assisting amputees with exercise plans. “This program shows there is a real need for the degree we are pursuing,” says Breunig.

How UWL's new program transforms lives of amputees and PT students

Walter Van Roo faced significant challenges after losing his legs to a brown recluse spider bite in 1995 and later being struck by a drunk driver while in his wheelchair. Despite medical predictions that he would probably never walk again, Van Roo has defied the odds.  

On a Thursday afternoon in May, he finished three laps around the UWL Fieldhouse track, supported by encouraging UW-La Crosse Physical Therapy (PT) students. 

“They’ve boosted me up again,” remarked Van Roo. “I’m very impressed with the students on this campus. They’ve made me feel good — like I’m succeeding. Why give up now?” 

Van Roo is a participant in the new Lower Extremity Amputee Program (LEAP) at UWL, designed for community members with lower extremity amputations. In this program, PT students create personalized exercise plans for each client, track their progress, and provide physical assistance, all under the supervision of Inga Cluppert, PT, DPT, a clinical assistant professor of physical therapy at UWL. The program initially ran for 12 weeks during the spring semester and is now being offered for six weeks over the summer at the UWL Fieldhouse. A certified prosthetist from LIMB LAB in La Crosse joins the group weekly. 

New fieldhouse inspires community program

Maddie Graefe, a second year PT program student, works with client Allen Olson in the LEAP program. Seeing how physical therapy helped her grandfather, an amputee, was inspiration to work with this population.

The program started after Cluppert envisioned the new fieldhouse, with its expansive second-floor walking track, as the perfect location to aid amputees learning to navigate with prosthetics. She shared the idea for the program with students in her UWL Physical Therapy Health & Wellness class and four students enthusiastically stepped up as part of their hands-on activity for the class.  

Inga Cluppert

Maria Turco, one of these students, was particularly motivated by her mother, an amputee and former Paralympic downhill skier.  

“My mom’s mentality that a disability doesn’t have to be disabling was really empowering for me, and something I wanted to inspire other people to feel too,” says Turco.  

Clients in the program have made significant progress, from returning to hobbies like gardening to relearning how to climb stairs. Van Roo initially aimed to walk one lap around the Fieldhouse track but quickly exceeded this goal, realizing he needed to set higher aspirations. “It was a slap in the face because I realized I didn’t have realistic goals,” he says.  

Likewise students are making progress toward their future PT goals. 

Maddie Graefe and Kaelyn Wagner, both second year PT students, were eager to work with this population as they see it meeting an important community need. “My grandpa was an amputee and seeing how much PT helped him really inspired me to work with this population,” says Graefe. 

They’ve learned that each client has specific types of injuries and prosthetics, so no textbook method can be used to find success, explains Wagner. Instead, they develop individual goals for each patient with specific plans for care. 

Second-year PT student Elise Durrie highlighted the importance of listening and respecting patients’ goals and boundaries. “You can learn all you want about teaching someone to walk or climb stairs, but working with patients with different gait mechanics is where you truly learn,” Durrie explained. “I’ve learned a lot I wouldn’t have considered if not a part of this program.” 

Social connection has been key 

Doug Worman, left, and his wife, Sharon, talk with student Casey Breunig. Another client Randy Gran connects with a representative from LIMB LAB, Ryan Fejedelem, CPO, pictured far right. Social connections through the program have been one of the best parts for participants.

One of the biggest takeaways for Turco, was seeing how an amputation isn’t just a physical injury, and so care isn’t just about teaching exercises. 

“There is so much in their lives that has changed,” says Turco. “Being able to talk to people, listen to their story and empathize is a big part of what we do.” 

The program has also fostered new social connections among participants. Many arrive early to chat and bond over shared experiences. “We understand what we’ve been through,” Van Roo noted. “There are a lot of mental changes, and it’s comforting to be with people who understand that.”  

Sharon Worman and her husband, Doug, of West Salem, learned about the program after meeting a PT student while shopping. Initially uncertain if Doug would be able to walk with his prosthetic, Sharon has since watched him build strength and confidence, walking up to 30 meters. “This program is really helping. The PT students are amazing—so patient and encouraging,” she said. “We are so blessed to have this in our community.”  

The future of LEAP 

PT student Kaelyn Wagner, right, connects with client Mary Davis. Participants call the program a win, win with both students and participants learning from one another.

Cluppert hopes to turn LEAP into a year-round program, with new PT students coming on to facilitate each semester. 

“This is a patient population that is becoming more prevalent in certain areas of the country – La Crosse being one. And students don’t necessarily get contact with these clients in other ways,” says Cluppert. “I’ve seen their confidence level jump leaps and bounds from day one.” 

Van Roo calls the program a win, win. He can’t get into physical therapy through his healthcare provider as often as he would like and this program is offered at no cost and with great support from students.   

“We are learning at the same time we are helping them, and they are learning at the same time they are helping us,” says Van Roo. “Not being part of this would be kind of silly.” 


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