WMU's Unified Clinics offer specialty care to thousands each year

contact: Paula M. Davis
| WMU News

Read more stories about Unified Clinics’ patients and practitioners in the WMU Magazine.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Second-year graduate student Erin Caspers remembers the first time she knew her developing skill in occupational therapy helped improve life for a patient.

It involved a young man who had suffered brain injuries successfully using a spoon with his weakened hand in a public setting.

Brain injury survivor Trevor Rhoda sits at a table with clinician Jenna Buscemi.

In addition to occupational therapy, brain injury survivor Trevor Rhoda also receives speech therapy through the Unified Clinics. Rhoda is pictured here with Jenna Buscemi, a speech-language pathology student clinician.

That kind of moment is everything to people who make it their life's work to help others, and it happened during Caspers' first semester in WMU's occupational therapy teaching clinic.

By working with real patients with real problems, the student practitioners in WMU's array of health clinics learn early on in their education the power of their future professions.

Through these outpatient clinical services, which include occupational therapy, speech-language therapy, hearing services and behavioral health counseling, students engage in patient care multiple times before graduation.

Casper's patient, Trevor Rhoda, began the semester with a modified spoon designed to be virtually spill-proof, but his goal was to go from swivel spoon to regular utensil.

"By the end of the semester, he did not need the special spoon anymore," says Caspers, a Bay City, Michigan, native who was inspired to pursue a degree in occupational therapy after observing the care and comfort an OT provided her terminally ill grandfather.

"If you do not have the injury, that doesn't seem like a big deal. But it's a social norm to be able to eat with a normal spoon, and it is a big deal."

Rhoda's mother shot footage of her determined son eating with a regular spoon at a wedding and shared the video with his student therapists at his next therapy session.

"I was super proud," Caspers says. "That was a great moment."

Few of them are recorded, but there are thousands of moments like this one because of the care provided in WMU's Unified Clinics.

Four-year-old Karys Huinink heard her parents' voices clearly for the first time at the Van Riper Hearing Clinic in the video shown here. The hearing center is one of the 10 outpatient clinics that comprise WMU's Unified Clinics.

Under the auspices of the College of Health and Human Services and, in the past five years alone, the clinics served more than 5,000 clients annually.

Students, under the tutelage and supervision of clinical professionals, provide the treatment and other therapeutic services professionals using the latest knowledge in their disciplines.

"They get to go into the classroom, learn, and then go to the clinic and implement and apply and practice," says Dr. Earlie Washington, dean of the College of Health and Human Services.

"We are very fortunate at Western that we could build this scope of practice, with 10 different clinics all meeting real, current community needs, but that are nevertheless part of the teaching programs of our college."

"I've been looking at colleges similar to ours for a very long time, and I can say there are few colleges who are specialized health care providers and provide the scope we do at Western Michigan University."

For occupational therapy students, such as Caspers, their first clinical experiences come primarily through the Unified Clinics, followed by field placements not operated by WMU.

Caspers admits that those first experiences with actual patients were intimidating.

"But there's a lot of preparing for it. The OT department does a really good job of preparing students," she says. "They also try to push students out of their comfort zones because that's how you learn how to do things."

Now in her final semester in the program, Caspers is working at a skilled nursing facility in Bay City and later this spring will spend three months in an outpatient medical practice. She expects to graduate in June.

To learn more about the Unified Clinics, visit wmich.edu/unifiedclinics.

Read more stories about Unified Clinics’ patients and practitioners in the WMU Magazine.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit wmich.edu/news.