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A personal injury leads Upstate student to pursue a doctoral degree in physical therapy

Tyler Viterise can trace his pursuit of a doctoral degree in physical therapy at Upstate Medical University’s College of Health Professions to a devastating football injury in high school.

In the sectional playoffs his senior year with Aquinas Institute in Rochester, Viterise was blocking on a running play when another player crashed into the side of his right leg. Tyler suffered a fractured and displaced fibula and a dislocated tibia.

After surgeons inserted plates and screws, Viterise went through six months of intense rehabilitation and physical therapy. He was able to play football all four years at the University of Rochester, where he earned a degree in biology.

“The great PTs at U of R put it on my radar,” Viterise said of physical therapy. The profession soon won out over his thoughts of becoming a physician assistant or applying to medical school to pursue sports medicine.

Tyler’s mom, Susan Lewandowski, also was instrumental in his decision to go for a DPT. She urged him to shadow physical therapists so he could get a closer look at what the career entails.

“She knows my personality, and she knew that having a connection to patients would be important to me,” he said.

Viterise benefits from that kind of connection now as a former patient. He checks in often with one of the physical therapists who treated him in Rochester, Tanya Beiswenger, to let her know how his “journey” to the DPT degree is going.

It’s going fine, and Viterise knows he made the right choice coming to Upstate.

“I lucked out. It’s been great. I really thrive if I have good mentors and somebody to look up to,” he said. “The faculty is extremely knowledgeable. We do a lot of hands-on learning at clinic, and the coursework backs it up. It all helps make us successful. The faculty harp on communication, and putting ego aside – know what you don’t know, and get that information.”

Viterise has also been encouraged to continue his interest in research. This year he co-authored a study of a novel concussion assessment tool, led by DPT associate professor Christopher Neville, PhD, and Brian Rieger, PhD, director of Upstate’s Concussion Center.

The study was published Nov. 6 in the journal Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Research.

“The evidence-based aspect is great,” Viterise said, noting that Neville has guided him through literature searches and the nuts and bolts of the research process.

This semester, Viterise is taking a sports-focused elective taught by associate professor Michelle Dolphin, DPT. It includes a couple of weekend sessions with two Class of 2013 Upstate alumni who are on the staff of professional baseball and football teams — Sean Bardenett, DPT (Kansas City Royals) and Joe Micca, DPT (Buffalo Bills).

“It’s cool to see them give back,” Viterise said.

Viterise’s passion for physical therapy and sports are especially relevant, given recent increased attention to concussions and brain injuries suffered by current and retired football players—and findings of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of dozens of deceased players.

“It’s tough. It’s the nature of the sport. I can’t blame football for the inherent risk,” Viterise said, noting that he sustained a few concussions on the field. “But I give football credit for my work ethic, being part of a team, and my relationships with people.”

There’s no question that football is dangerous, he said, but he thinks the National Football League tries to make it as safe as possible. In 2009, the NFL instituted a medical protocol for any player suspected of being concussed, and has updated it several times.

College and high school programs are paying attention as well. At the University of Rochester, Viterise and his teammates wore helmets equipped with sensors that recorded frequency and degree of impact. The data was downloaded after every practice as part of a study.

“It’s such an ambiguous disease, and the culture is exploding around it now,” Viterise said. “It’s all kind of starting to unfold. I’ve always wanted to be involved in research. I’m in the right place at the right time. I’m very lucky.”

In February, he’ll be among a contingent of Upstate DPT students going to New Orleans for the American Physical Therapy Association’s annual Combined Sections conference. The students will present research and network with other students and physical therapists.

“It speaks highly of Upstate that so many of us are going,” Viterise said. “I went last year, so now I know what to expect. We get to learn, network and be revitalized that this is the path we’ve chosen.”

—from With Distinction

Caption: Tyler Viterise, DPT, Class of 2018, works as a teaching assistant with first-year physical therapy students. Here, he discusses proper hand placement during range-of-motion exercises with Clare Herubin (on table), Kayla Fessler and Jonathan Thomas. Photo by Jim McKeever.

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