Ulises Mantilla was a 21-year-old college student when he suffered a stroke at his home in Newark in 2012. The last thing he remembers about that day is dialing 911. He awoke from a coma a month later in the hospital, unable to walk or perform simple tasks.
After a year of recovery, he underwent three brain operations to alleviate problems resulting from the stroke – but those surgeries resulted in more complications. “I was told my radiation surgery could have side effects over time. It manifested a year later. I started falling, suffering seizures and lost control of the right side of my body,” he says.
Although Mantilla returned to school in 2013, he spent most of 2014 hospitalized with side effects from the surgeries, as his weight ballooned from 170 to 300 pounds from medication, but he was resolved to reclaim his life. He underwent four weeks of acute physical therapy before being discharged.
“I was determined to do what I could to return to school,” he says. “I had such trouble with memory loss, I needed my studies to jumpstart my brain.”
Mantilla returned home in 2015, walking with a cane but with strength so limited he could not even grasp a sponge. “I needed to continue outpatient therapy, but the hospital was too far from my home,” says Mantilla, whose therapist suggested the Community Participatory Physical Therapy Clinic (CPPT) in Newark.
“That’s when my life began to change,” he says.
Operated by Rutgers School of Health Professions, the free, student-run CPPT clinic serves the greater Newark community with physical therapy services and education on wellness and health. Mantilla is one of 500 patients served by the clinic since it opened in 2011. Each year, 65 students pursuing a doctorate in physical therapy volunteer, supervised by a licensed physical therapist, as part of their coursework.
Patients can attend therapy sessions without a referral for as long as determined to be therapeutically necessary to relieve pain or improve their function.
Mantilla, who began going to the clinic weekly, noticed a difference in the care he received. “The students don’t just give me exercises. They allow me to be very open with my concerns and desires for treatment. I did not feel I had that level of communication with my other therapists,” he says. “For example, my seizure medication can make me feel sluggish and drowsy. They helped me understand what my body can do in spite of how I feel.”This welcoming environment makes healthcare accessible to people who might not otherwise seek it. “Some of our patients live in shelters or have mental illness,” says Sue Paparella-Pitzel, the clinic’s director. “They are comfortable here because there is no judgment, no payments, no questions about living arrangements.”
The students build a rapport with patients and often refer them to their physician or the New Jersey Medical School Clinic for treatment of other conditions like uncontrolled hypertension or diabetes. “Sometimes, our referral is what prompts patients to see a physician. They know the students will inquire about it at the next visit,” says Paparella-Pitzel.
The clinic also operates the Synergy Program, a one-hour group session for patients like Mantilla who are living with chronic stroke. It combines physical therapy with peer support. “I look forward to the group. I love the sense of community and positivity – it’s something other therapists didn’t offer,” he says. “The program was integral to helping me regain flexibility lost to atrophy and allowed me to perform my exercises better. My sessions at the clinic not only helped me regain my mobility, but they also helped me return to my normal weight.”
After a year of working diligently to improve his balance and motor skills, Mantilla, now 27, is walking without his cane, has graduated from community college and this fall started his first semester at Rutgers University-Newark, where he is studying neurobiology.
“Before I had my stroke, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” he says. “Throughout this whole ordeal, I have been inspired by my neurosurgeons and the physical therapy students to help improve the quality of life for others who suffer neurological trauma as I did.”