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Southern Union launches physical therapy assistant program

VALLEY — During the five o’clock hour on Tuesday, the Valley campus of Southern Union State Community College hosted a ribbon cutting to celebrate an important new addition to its health sciences program. The Valley campus is now home to the only Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) program offered by a community college within a two-hour drive of the Valley.

“We are so excited to have this ribbon cutting today,” said SUSCC President Todd Shackett as he cut the ribbon. “Dr. Jeff Leatherman and Dean Rhonda Davis have done great work in getting this program here. The Physical Therapist Assistant, or PTA, is a fast-growing field. I have had orthopedic surgery and have been pleased with the results.”

Leatherman said that it had been a fast-moving process for the Valley campus to get to this point.

“This room we are in has undergone some dramatic change over the past eight months,” he said. “We are really excited about the transformation we have seen.”

Over that eight-month period, a room just inside the main entrance of the John Carmichael building has been turned into an ideal setting for students who are learning the science behind being a physical therapist assistant.

Those of us who learned by watching a teacher write with a stick of chalk on a blackboard can hardly comprehend what’s taking place today in a classroom. It’s definitely that way in the PTA classes Leatherman is teaching.

“This is something that’s in great demand,” Leatherman said. “The profession has grown by more than 40 percent over the last four years. Young people who have two-year degrees and are certificated as physical therapist assistants can make as much as $58,000 a year.”

Leatherman has  been a physical therapist for 25 years. His wife, Michelle, is also a physical therapist. They had a very successful practice in Greensboro, North Carolina before relocating to the east Alabama area.

“We love it here,” he said.

While Leatherman directs the PTA program at the Valley campus, Michelle is with the Hughston Clinic in Auburn. They were in part drawn to the area by the results of an assessment study done in 2017.

“It revealed a great need for physical therapy assistants in this area,” he said. “We are the only community college within a two-hour drive that’s now offering this.”

The aging Baby Boomer population is driving the need for more physical therapists and physical therapist assistants. As people age, they are in more need of professional help with the pains they have in their knees, feet, elbows and shoulders. Joint replacement surgery done by orthopedic surgeons is very common now.

After surgery, it’s the physical therapist who helps get them back to normal in terms of walking and basic functionality.

The new physical therapy assistant program joins a health science curriculum at the Valley campus that includes training in the fields of emergency medical services, registered nursing, practical nursing, surgical technology and radiologic technology.

Davis, the dean of the health sciences department, is pleased with the direction the school’s health sciences department is taking. She’s excited about the PTA program and likes the results seen in the school’s medical assistant technology program.

“We started it in the spring of 2018,“ she said. “We are now averaging between 12 and 15 students in this program per semester. We are also training students to be certified in EKG and phlebotomy technology. An EKG (or electrocardiogram) technician is trained in reading a heart monitor. A phlebotomist is trained to draw blood for testing, perform blood transfusions, conduct research and run or assist with blood donations.

In most cases, it takes only six weeks to be trained as a certified nursing assistant, or CNA, at Southern Union. This is a good way to get started with a career in health science. It’s possible for a CNA to receive the additional training to become an LPN or an RN.

“It’s our goal to provide career pathways for students to have rewarding careers,” Davis said. “There are good-paying jobs out there for them while they continue with their education. You can be certified before you earn your associate’s degree.”