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Where Empathy Meets Inspiration: Going the Distance

Oct. 6, 2020

Early in her career, pediatric physical therapist Kelsey Okruch helped a 3-year-old patient with spina bifida learn to walk using an assistive piece of equipment called a gait trainer. “I had to physically move his legs when we started,” says Okruch, BHS ’08, DPT ’10, manager of MU Health Care’s Children’s Therapy Center. As the child gained strength and confidence, he was able to move his legs on his own.

He also gained distance. A hospital receptionist stuck tape to the wall to mark his progress, moving it a little farther every week. Eventually, the tape and the boy traveled the entire length of the hospital. “So many people were cheering. He became the hospital celebrity,” Okruch recalls.

The moment was gratifying for her, too. “Any kind of milestone we can help a child meet either with an adaptation or independently is beyond rewarding,” she says.

Okruch has passed some significant milestones herself. Having earned 40 hours of college credit in high school, she graduated from MU’s physical therapy program at the young age of 22. Last year, at age 31, she became manager of the Children’s Therapy Center, which draws children from 25 counties for physical, occupational and speech therapy. Her plans for the clinic include developing its teletherapy program (the COVID-19 outbreak drove home the need for this service) and — for kids who need intensive therapy several hours a day — bringing a teacher on staff so they don’t fall behind in school.

In her management role, she spends about 10 percent of her time working with patients (including the little celebrity, who is now a teen). She spends as much or more time helping other therapists develop professionally. “Finding a piece of equipment that is going to drastically change the way a child functions in the world is rewarding, but now in this managerial role, being able to support my colleagues and help them become more independent and confident in their practice feels like kind of the same thing but on a different level,” Okruch says. “I’m helping them be successful, and that’s rewarding, too.”

This story by Dawn Klingensmith, BA, BJ ’97, was originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of MIZZOU alumni magazine.