The Snapchat video popped up at the end of a long week. It was a military veteran, an amputee who had lost part of his leg and all but given up hope he could regain the strength for everyday activities like working out at a gym.
“Hey Vinnie,” beamed the young man following a physical therapy session at Walter Reed Medical Center. “I wanted to let you know I’m super-sore from our workout. But thanks for pushing me through it, because I can tell it’s working.”
That 10-second video validated everything Rutgers School of Health Professions Physical Therapy Program student Vincent Petracco had worked so hard toward.
“This person told me, ‘I’ve never had a connection like this with a therapist,” said Petracco, whose last semester was spent in clinical rotation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “Here I am at the most prestigious clinical setting I can think of, and a patient is telling me I made an impact. This is what it’s all about for me.”
For the past three years, Petracco has balanced a commitment as a reservist in the U.S. Coast Guard in Cape May – where a weekend might find him pulling a missing boater from the sea – with the demands of the rigorous, full-time doctor of physical therapy program located in Newark.
And he has more than succeeded, his professors say.
“He has a presence about him. He knows what he wants to achieve, and it’s very much tied to service above and beyond serving people through physical therapy. He wants to serve those in the military,” said Nancy Kirsch, director of the Rutgers School of Health Professions Physical Therapy North program.
Rutgers SHP had lobbied for a coveted rotation at Walter Reed and when it succeeded this year, the program wanted its first intern to be stellar, someone who would pave the way for others. The name that immediately shot to mind was Petracco, who came to the program on the GI bill, and whose self-discipline and sense of purpose were evident almost from the day he stepped in the classroom.
But Mr. Petracco didn’t always have that sense of purpose. A first-generation college student, he quit school after one semester. His parents moved south, leaving him with a house in Sandy Hook to keep up.
Construction work paid the bills, while he pursued a dream of being in a rock band. A trumpet and bass guitar player, he performed at Asbury Park’s legendary Stone Pony (although never running into Bruce Springsteen), and once opened for Bob Marley’s Wailers.
But when he lost his construction job, he ditched his dream of a career in a band and joined the U.S. Coast Guard. Stationed at Fort Pierce, Florida, his search-and-rescue duties included such work as plucking inexperienced lobster divers from rough waters. He also did drug enforcement.
Petracco also pushed himself to get a degree, taking credits through Penn State University’s online program, and then finishing his Bachelor’s Degree at Monmouth University before enrolling at Rutgers School of Health Professions. “My parents had jobs, but not a career. I knew I wanted a career,” he said.
A triathlon competitor, he discovered his interest in physical therapy while a patient receiving treatment for injuries caused by overuse. "They were like magicians. They knew what was causing my pain and could make it better, " he said. "For me, that was it. I decided to leave active duty and pursue physical therapy."
He couldn't leave the military entirely behind, however, and his work as a reservist - which includes a supervising a boat unit in Cape May - earned him three Coast Guard awards in 2016. He was one of nine national finalists for 2016 Coast Guard Reserve Enlisted Person of the Year. Among other things, he was commended for his volunteer work to reduce injuries among reservists by teaching them proper stretching techniques, and his ability to connect with veterans.
In the classroom, he has not only excelled as a student in the Physical Therapy Program, he took on the role of teaching assistant for gross anatomy, a job he loves.
It hasn’t always been easy. Professor Kirsch said when faculty noticed his fatigue, and learned of his Coast Guard duty, they offered him some flexibility in completing the curriculum. “He never asked,” she said. “We just realized how hard he was working.”
While in the Coast Guard, he got married and he and his wife, Jillian, are expecting their first child in September. His goal upon graduation is to get a commission in the U.S Navy as a physical therapist.
“I feel that being in the military gives me a level of camaraderie with veterans," he said. "Hopefully, I can make a significant impact not only in their rehabilitation, but on their lives as well."
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