USC DPT alumni create a nonprofit to provide free treatment for injured protestors.
BY MICHELLE MCCARTHY
August 20, 2020
EMILY VERNON WAS ONE OF THOUSANDS WHO TOOK TO THE STREETS EARLIER THIS SUMMER to peacefully protest the death of George Floyd.
“As a person of color, I’ve experienced my own injustices,” she says. “I feel the need to be out there on the front lines. There’s a feeling of unity when you’re with everybody, and we’re all fighting the same fight.”
At a demonstration in May, Vernon was shot in the face with a rubber bullet and tackled by police. The bullet only left a bruise (thankfully, she was wearing an N95 mask), but her fall resulted in a flare-up of an old back/shoulder injury. Undeterred, Vernon showed up at another gathering the following day. That’s when she broke her ankle.
“I got hit in the ankle by what I think was a rubber bullet,” says Vernon, an e-commerce merchandising manager. “I fell on the ground and police started tear-gassing the crowd, so I had to get up and continue running. Two days later, I ended up going to urgent care and realized my ankle was broken.”
On crutches and with her foot in a boot, Vernon headed back out to protest a week later. That’s when she met members of the Movement Network (formerly known as PT4Justice), a group of recent USC DPT graduates who provide pro bono physical therapy treatment and education to those who’ve been injured while protesting against racial injustice.
“It started when Kari [Ayoob DPT ’19] posted on her social media: ‘Anyone who was or who knows of anyone injured at a protest, please contact me for physical therapy services,’” says Chelsea Fan DPT ’19. “I thought, ‘That’s a great way to get involved because since a lot of us are still working in a clinic, it’s a little hard for us to go to protests and then go back to the clinic and treat patients, so I messaged her. Within a day or two, we already had the rest of the people from our class who wanted to help out.”
The initial group consisted of 11 USC alumni. “We all have an extensive history of giving back to the community,” Fan says. “At USC, Ben [Yu DPT ’19,], Lauren [Wittrock DPT ’19] and I were in mobile clinic, where we provided healthcare services to the homeless population in Hollywood. A lot of us felt a little bit helpless at first because we couldn’t necessarily go march, but we wanted to be able to help in another way. I realized I had a skill set that could be really helpful for people.”
Once word got out about the Movement Network’s mission, physical therapists from other states and cities flooded the members’ inboxes with inquiries to see how they could help. The organization now has 70 physical therapists across 12 states who’ve offered their services.
Some members attended protests in order to gain exposure, wearing masks and holding signs on the sidelines listing contact information for anyone who’d been injured. “People would take photos of them and contact us later,” Wittrock says.
Vernon emailed Fan, and her first session took place via Zoom to determine the extent of her injuries. “She gave me a few stretches to try out and asked if I was comfortable getting treated in her home,” Vernon says. “Chelsea was extremely gentle knowing how high my pain level was. She used a taping technique that helped the swelling on my leg tremendously. I’m feeling so much better now, and I’m close to being fully recovered.”
Eryn Roberts was also injured by a rubber bullet discharged by police — which cut through her right tricep tendon and muscle — while protesting in downtown San Diego. She met with Fan virtually for two sessions and was consulted about her injury and what expectations were for recovery. “Chelsea was very helpful in making sure I got set up with the appropriate physical therapist for my injury and someone I could see face-to-face in my area,” Roberts says.
Patient injuries have ranged from soreness to issues resulting from violence. “There were a lot of knee injuries,” Fan recalls. “Quarantine had happened for two months, and a lot of people were pretty sedentary. Then all of a sudden, they were out walking, so they weren’t prepared.”
What the Future Holds
The Movement Network is currently in the process of filing for nonprofit status, with help from a pro bono law firm. Looking beyond the current protests, the organization wants to be able to help underserved populations, especially those who have had a hard time navigating the healthcare system.
“We also want to go into schools and educate kids about the physical therapy profession and provide mentorship,” Fan explains. “Through education, we want to get more people of color interested in physical therapy and let them know it’s obtainable for everyone.” Future goals include establishing free clinics that provide health screenings and creating satellite branches in other states.
Giving back to the community is ingrained in the education at USC. As a result, Fan says it’s not surprising that members of her cohort came together to create this organization.
“The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” she continues. “More so than any of us thought. We weren’t going into this like, ‘Who’s going to notice this? How can they help us grow?’ We realized this is something that’s needed in the community.”
Many of the PTs who are offering free services do so in addition to their regular 40-hour work weeks. But Wittrock says when it’s something you’re passionate about, it doesn’t feel like extra work. “As somebody who has a background in social justice and working with underserved communities, I was like, ‘This is it.
This is what I’ve been looking for — a way to get back to working with those types of communities.’ A lot of us go into physical therapy because we want to help people. It’s something I look forward to when I get done with my day, no matter how exhausted I am.”