To Your Health: What Does Health Mean To You?
By Sarah Shebek
Catherine Ortega, St. George Satellite DPT Program Director, Department of Physical Therapy
I’m a teacher and a movement specialist. As a physical therapist and athletic trainer, I help people to get to their goals and move through life. I really believe in accessible health care and education for everybody, and here in St. George I am helping help make that happen.
I was born and raised in Texas and my first college degree was in athletic training, but I always knew I’d continue in PT. I knew I wanted to work with elite athletes and ended up working as a primary provider on the Pro Tennis Tour and with the U.S. Olympic Committee Delegations, traveling the world.
It was great, but it brought up a lot of tension, if you will—working with highly motivated athletes while living in San Antonio at the time, which had one of the highest obesity rates in the country. I decided to get my doctorate in motivation and pursued a faculty position at the UT Health Science Center.
When I became department chair there, I met Scott Ward, and we did an accreditation site visit together. He’s a wonderful man and a great leader. He said, “by the way, we’re starting this program in St. George,” and I said, “I’m not leaving Texas!” But I gave it some thought and decided it was time to do something else, so here I am. The University of Utah is a wonderful place, the faculty are solid, and the education is world renowned.
My near-term goal is to see our expansion pathway here in St. George graduate the full cohort. We’re at 13 students and will eventually expand to 24. I want to help establish the U as a presence here in Southwest Utah. I want us to be known for graduating practitioners ready to serve in this region, and practitioners from first generation families and from rural communities. Every year here in St. George, we do a little bit more and people start to get to know us.
Exercise is the one pill that we need to take every day. As a physical therapist, I’m helping people get control over their health and decisions using non-pharmacological interventions. This also helps reduce the environmental burden of healthcare. As an administrator, I spend a lot of hours each day sitting, and I need to be intentional about movement: walking the hall, taking the stairs, using a standing desk. Research shows that sitting is the new smoking.
I think as a society we have an illness care system instead of an equal-access healthcare system for which we strive. We need systemic change on an institutional policy level, from the top down and the bottom up. It’s hard to be positive if you listen to the news, but every time I talk to students, I’m optimistic change will happen.
Jasmine Yadeskie, Health & Kinesiology Undergraduate
Something that’s a little unique about me is I’m living with a brain tumor. I’m taking a targeted antigen therapy for it and I’m very fortunate that it’s not as invasive as chemotherapy or radiation. I had my first brain surgery right out of high school and jumping into college was a tough experience. But I’m proud that I’m going to complete my undergraduate degree on time this May.
I’m originally from a small town in Northern Nevada and schools surrounding us are not primarily health focused. The University of Utah has an incredible health program, not only as far as our resources go with the hospital nearby, but also the amazing research done in our university. I was excited to learn from a deeply rooted research program.
I don’t usually share a lot of my personal life in the classroom and to most of my professors I’m just another student. The antigen therapy I’m on does make me tired and affects my appetite, but it hasn’t stopped me from completing my everyday tasks. I have the same genetic mutation that you find in AML leukemia and my therapy is targeted to that. I’ve been taking it for six months, and studies have shown that 50% of patients achieve full remission after this treatment. I’m excited to finish up soon.
For me, being able to go out and move my body lessens the side effects of my therapy, and it solidifies my mental health. When I’m able to move my body and refuel it properly, I feel better about my health and feel grateful for it. And I’m thrilled that preventative healthcare is on the upswing—healthcare should focus more on exercise and nutrition and less on pricey medical interventions.
One thing I’m passionate about is sustainable agriculture, so I’d love to develop a whole foods outreach program and bring nutritious foods to those who need it most. Connecting with strangers can be so fulfilling, it’s the human experience of getting to know another person and not be so rooted to our devices. I really like working in the community and being involved with people daily.
I think leading a healthy life has helped me tackle the challenge of completing college while I’m undergoing treatment for my brain tumor. Studying kinesiology has helped me appreciate how movement can help prevent a lot of chronic conditions and prescription pills. I’ve been able to have the immersive life experience of going to college despite my chronic health condition, and I’m ready to graduate!
Stephan Bodkin, Assistant Professor, Department of Athletic Training
As a researcher in athletic training, I’m trying to provide clinical guidelines to safely and effectively return individuals back to activity following muscle and joint injury.
I attended a hybrid clinical/research master’s program at the University of Virginia which introduced me to sports medicine research and really created my passion for the field. Active people unfortunately get injured. I think it’s motivating to see the drive of athletes who want to get back to top form and I want my research to facilitate this.
Today, I work with surgeons at the Utah Orthopedic Center and provide them with objective measures of patient function. Through this program, we want to provide the patients and their healthcare team individualized reports of how they are functioning and where they can improve to get back to sport safely. Our long-term goal is to work with every patient who comes into the center following sport-related injury.
Most of the time with active individuals, it’s difficult to prevent injury, and a previous joint injury is the most significant risk factor for future injuries. We want to prevent further complications such as secondary injuries, osteoarthritis, or reduced activity levels. In short, injury shouldn’t keep individuals from getting back to their desired lifestyles.
For me, it’s providing individualized, patient-centered research and treatment perspectives.Patients often present differently following the same injury, so our treatments should also be a little different. With personalized assessments following injury, we can target different
rehabilitation treatments to help optimize outcomes.
Scientific research can take a long time to be implemented into practice. I try to structure my research from questions that patients and clinicians are asking and then subsequently aim to translate my findings back to patient care. I hope my work can help speed up this process a little. If I can help bridge the gap between scientific research and clinical care, bettering patient outcomes in the process, I’d deem that a successful career.
Emma Taylor, Parks, Recreation & Tourism Undergraduate
Last year, I co-founded the Women’s Outdoor Leadership Initiative (WOLI) on campus with two other students, and I’m currently the president. We’ve been able to get 700 female students from the U to join our ranks and go on a bunch of overnight trips. The outdoors can be an intimidating place, but we teach technical and leadership skills and we’ve been sponsored by different organizations like Hoka and Pit Viper.
I’m originally from San Francisco and came to the U originally as a kinesiology major. After two days, I switched to PRT. I loved the idea of making outdoor recreating into a career and combining the best of both worlds. There’s so much you can do through PRT, and it varies a lot from the traditional career path many people think of. For me, it’s a better pathway to a more balanced life.
When I think of health, I think of all the preventative things you can do to avoid disease. Outdoor recreation will be a huge part of preventative healthcare because there are so many benefits that incorporate all aspects of wellbeing. I see a lot of youth programs using outdoor recreation as a preventative health measure, for example.
I just took a job working as an instructor with Outward Bound and I hope to work with them for a long time. I see myself continuing as an instructor or moving into upper management. This summer, I’ll be right outside of Asheville, NC working primarily with high school students. Their mission is all about character development through the outdoors, which I’m passionate about.
When I started WOLI, I saw there was a gender gap in the outdoor fields due to a lack of educational opportunities for women and physical differences. That lit a fire in me, and I wanted to be a person who made a change.
One of my favorite things is a backcountry navigation trip that we do in the desert, in conjunction with PRT’s U-Explore program. We take 30 women and wear a bunch of fun glittery outfits, but we also learn about maps and wander into new places. It builds a lot of competence and community. I’ve had several people tell me it’s where they met all their best friends.
In the future, I’ll continue to help get people outside so they can experience the benefits of nature. It improved my own wellbeing quite a bit. Beyond that, I want to help people learn how to recreate in a safe and healthy way. I’m proud that I’ve accomplished both with WOLI.
Emmanuelkofi Addo, PhD Student, Department of Nutrition & Integrative Physiology
Growing up in Ghana, I had a good friend who couldn’t play with us due to his poor eyesight. I told him not to worry and that I would become a doctor to care for his eye health. As it turned out, he also pursued a career in optometry, and we ended up in the same class.
I did my bachelor’s in optometry at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana. My mentor, Dr. Akuffo, had completed his doctoral studies in ocular nutrition at the time, and as I reviewed his dissertation, my interest was piqued. I was looking forward to working with the best in the field, so he recommended Paul Bernstein, MD, PhD, at the University of Utah, who was known for his expertise.
Since the University of Utah does not offer an optometry program, I applied to the PhD program in Nutrition and Integrative Physiology, where Dr. Bernstein is affiliated. Thankfully, I was admitted in 2019 and joined the Bernstein Lab as a graduate research assistant at the Moran Eye Center. So far, it has been an incredible journey.
My research focuses on how the intake of carotenoids, a nutrient in dark leafy vegetables and yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, affect our eyesight throughout the human lifetime. My first project is the Lutein and Zeaxanthin in Pregnancy (L-ZIP) trial. We want to determine if taking a prenatal supplement containing carotenoids can offset carotenoid depletion that expecting mothers experience during the third trimester. We also want to see if it will improve the development of babies' central nervous system while in the womb.
My second study, the Moran AMD Genetic Testing Assessment Study (MAGENTA), examines the impact of pre-symptomatic genetic testing for age-related macular degeneration (AMD. We want to know if individuals who are found to be at risk will take more precautions, like eating
more fruits and vegetables, to help preserve their eyesight.
I believe it is essential for us to take control of our well-being by making informed choices about our diets. A balanced diet, regular exercise, mindfulness, adequate sleep, and stress management are crucial for maintaining good health and reducing reliance on traditional medicines. Through my research, I want to highlight the significance of incorporating fruits and vegetables into our diets to support our eyes and overall health.
Prevention in healthcare is extremely important. As a student, I aim to use my acquired knowledge and experiences to help individuals lead healthier lifestyles. I am determined to continue learning and growing in my field before returning home to serve my community.
Steven Bell, Associate Professor, Department of Occupational and Recreational Therapies
I’m an Associate Professor in the Department of Occupational and Recreational Therapies, and a recreational therapist by practice.
As a professor, I teach students how to work with individuals with disabilities that can include psychological, physical, cognitive, emotional, or spiritual. I also teach students how to work in different settings: hospitals, aging adult facilities, skilled nursing facilities, physical and substance rehabilitation facilities, and mental health facilities to name a few. There are a lot of different places where recreational therapists practice.
I’ve been working in the College of Health for 30 years and have been on campus for approximately 35 years. I arrived as a master's student after talking with my mother, who was at the time the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University. She found out about a grant that was being supported in the Department of Recreation and Leisure, now PRT. The TEAM-TR grant supported students with disabilities, as well as students who are members of racial and ethnic minority groups, while they obtained their Therapeutic Recreation degrees.
Recreational therapy is known as a discovery major, meaning many people don’t know anything about it or that it is a profession. My undergraduate degree was in physical education, so I’d planned to work with generally younger people in the public schools. But as a recreational therapist, I found you can work with people who come from a wide range of age groups, populations, and differing abilities/disabilities.
When I think of health in the context of recreational therapy, it’s a therapeutic approach. It teaches individuals with one or more disabilities how to take care of themselves. We know physical activity increases one’s health and somewhat prevents some illnesses, and it can also help with the recovery process when you get sick.
I believe that preventative healthcare is going to continue to be on the rise because people are realizing that it’s the wave of the future for health. But there are some disadvantages in healthcare generally, and preventative healthcare specifically. People who are in lower socioeconomic statuses, racial and ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ+ population, and native peoples face inequalities in our healthcare system.
Recreational therapists can help address inequality as they work in facilities that can provide preventative health measures. There are opportunities to work in community recreation centers, for example, where services are subsidized and accessible. Working in the community can reach people who may not otherwise have access to preventive care.
Alex Terrill, Associate Professor, Department of Occupational and Recreational Therapies
I am a faculty member at the University of Utah, and I study resilience in individuals with chronic neurological conditions and find ways to better support them and their families.
I was born and raised in Switzerland, and most of my family is still overseas. I’ve had a lot of different jobs—I was a flight attendant for a year and became really fascinated with human behavior. When you’re trapped at 30,000 feet in the air, you really see some interesting behaviors show. I knew I wanted to get into academia, so I went back to school for psychology at the Ohio State University.
At OSU I worked in a psychoneuroimmunology lab as an undergrad research assistant. Our project looked at yoga and how it potentially mediates stress and immune function connections. It was an “aha” moment for me. This is what I want to do, I want to look at how the body and mind affect each other.
I ended up doing two research postdoctoral fellowships in rehab medicine at the University of Washington. I wanted to learn more about research in a rehab setting and I really fell in love with it, I drank the Kool-Aid.
When it came time to apply for a job, I had some connections at the University through the psychology department. When I saw an opening in the OT department, I went for it, even though I’m not an occupational therapist. The department wanted to expand their research portfolio—I saw myself being at the U and thriving, and I’ve been here since 2014.
More health less medicine resonates with me so strongly, it’s what I do. What I see in the rehab populations is that there is so much focus on the medical piece, but a lot of things that determine quality of life aren’t pharmacological, like relationships and mental health.
The R01 I have funded supports couples coping with stroke. We walk them through an eight-week journey with modules, a lot of strengths-based, positive psychology activities. We’ve adapted the activities so that they’re doable for people with a huge range of functional abilities after stroke. Our research showed that we were able to decrease depression and improve resilience through these activities, which is a hard thing to move the needle on.
I think back to my parents in Switzerland, they’re getting older, and it can be hard to maintain those relationships over distance. That inspired me to create some of my interventions remotely. But I’m also thinking about the rural health piece, and how we can provide healthcare to those who physically can’t access services. I’d like to explore how we can provide better care to those areas.