Updated June 19, 2018
To hear Dr. Cynthia Vaccarino speak about working in physical therapy, whether it is in a hospital or classroom, you understand the depth of her passion. As Hodges University’s physical therapist assistant (PTA) program chair, the hard work she puts forth to oversee the rigorous program pays off when she witnesses the transition of her students turning into the role of colleagues.
“In the PTA program, we work hard to make sure our students are prepared when they take their board exams, so I feel like one proud mama when I learn that our students have passed and are out there in the field,” said Vaccarino.
Joining Hodges University in 2012, Vaccarino served as an adjunct faculty member teaching Anatomy & Physiology. While as an adjunct, she also worked with Lee Memorial Health Systems as a physical therapist and therapy manager for Home Health. In 2014, deciding to join Hodges’ School of Health Sciences full time, she accepted the PTA program chair position. “As the program chair, I feel like I am able to give back to the profession that has given me so much,” she said.
The field of physical therapy has been a part of Vaccarino’s life since the age of 16 when she worked as an aide for a physical therapist. As an athletic trainer at her New Jersey high school, she spent time rehabilitating her school’s athletes. “For two weeks during the summer, I attended a Cramer Camp that taught basic rehabilitation and taping skills,” she explained.
Following her dream of becoming a physical therapist, she understood the difficulty of getting into a physical therapy school, saying, “Out of 500 applications, Georgia State University only accepted 35 students. Luckily, I was one of the 35.” While in college, she served as an athletic trainer and earned a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy in 1994.
After graduation, she moved back to her home state of New Jersey only to long for the fun in the sun. Moving to Florida, she began building her career with Lee Memorial Health Systems. Employed as a rotating physical therapist for two years, she spent six months at a time working in various areas of physical therapy. During her time with the neurotrauma team, she discovered what would become her area of expertise – strokes, spinal cord and head injuries.
In 1997, she became a senior therapist at HealthPark Medical Center, which opened her eyes to teaching, saying, “I really enjoyed teaching, mentoring and educating PT and PTA students. I think that experience impacted my decision to enter into teaching.”
Vaccarino went on to work in travel therapy for three years, traveling to Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Detroit for 13-week contracts every April to December. It was also during this time she decided to return to school. Enrolling in Simmons College in 2008, she graduated with a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree in 2010.
“I’ve never grown tired of the physical therapy field,” she said. “To be able to work in so many different settings, and to have the opportunity to move around, you become quite marketable.”
This kind of marketable experience has led Vaccarino to where she is now, serving as Hodges’ PTA program chair. Ensuring the program remains compliant with the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), she also establishes and maintains contacts with clinics for student internship opportunities. In addition, she works one weekend each month as a practicing home health physical therapist and participates in educational opportunities within the community.
From speaking at the Healthy Start graduation each year to facilitating leadership classes to leaders of Lee Memorial Health System, she is building connections and serving as a positive ambassador for Hodges.
“The PTA program at Hodges is intense. Students are on our Naples campus five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Due to the program structure, students cannot work and they must maintain a 2.5 GPA each semester,” she said. “I tell students who are interested in the program that they need to get their grades, meaning As and Bs, and their finances in order, and make sure they have the support they need.”
Prior to their acceptance into the one-year program, students must fulfill their prerequisites, which many complete in Hodges’ biomedical sciences associate program. Apart from the prerequisites, students must meet the required GPA and provide documentation of the observation requirement, which is 12 hours spent observing a PTA or PT in a physical therapy facility. Students must then participate in an interview process and produce a written essay. Only 20 students are accepted into the program, which starts in January each year.
Throughout the year, Vaccarino works closely with fellow professors, Dr. Sharon Dickmann and Professor Jeanne Csuy, to bring in guest speakers who are experts in areas such as women’s care and neuro-developmental treatment.
“Our course topics include neurological and musculoskeletal disorders, modalities, orthopedic and therapeutic exercise,” she explained. In addition to their courses, students must complete clinical internships. For 15 weeks, students spend 40 hours each week working under the supervision of a clinical instructor. They see patients with different diagnoses and levels of acuteness. “We’re now seeing a lot of veterans who are amputees,” she said.
Compiling all of the information acquired throughout the year, students graduate in December and prepare for their board exams. “Exams are offered four times each year. The graduates can obtain a temporary license in Florida, which is good for six months until they pass their boards. With their temporary license, they can work under a physical therapist,” she said.
As of July 18, 2017, the PTA class of 2016 received a 100 percent pass rate and a 100 percent employment rate. Elated to hear the news, Vaccarino said, “This shows that our students are well prepared to take this exam and begin their new careers. With this type of information, Hodges looks to attract new students to our PTA program.”