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Student goes from paralyzed to Polk State OTA & Orlando Health

Chase Roberts was told he would never walk again. Now, he’s not only on his own two feet — he is also helping others recover from traumatic injuries.

Roberts, a student in Polk State College’s Occupational Therapy Assistant Program, is completing his final clinical rotation at Orlando Health (Orlando) Regional Medical Center Institute for Advanced Rehabilitation, the place where he recovered from his paralysis.

The Polk State Lakeland Collegiate High School 2009 graduate broke his neck in a car wreck in January 2016, which left him wheelchair-bound as a quadriplegic. He suffered a C-2 level spinal cord injury; such a severe injury is often fatal due to its impact on the ability to breathe independently.

“At first, it was about just trying to stay alive,” Roberts reflected. “My lungs weren’t fully functioning, so a lot of therapy was involved with respiration. We could worry about rehabbing later.”

“I was paralyzed from the neck down. I had doctors tell me, ‘Go home and widen your hallways, you’re never going to move anything below your chin again.’ I was distraught.”

A wiggle of his big toe provided hope.

It brought him to Orlando Health ORMC Institute for Advanced Rehabilitation, where he underwent intense occupational and physical therapies for seven weeks before entering outpatient treatment.

“My biggest sources of hope were my therapists,” Roberts said. “My therapists knew the signs to look for and what we could expand on to improve my recovery. When they got me up and walking for the first time, I bawled my eyes out. They never gave up on me.”

They also inspired his career path.

Prior to his injury, Roberts had completed his Polk State Associate in Arts degree and was working as a manager at a local restaurant chain, “just figuring life out like young people do.” Returning to Polk State was a no-brainer for Roberts, who never lost touch with his mentors. This included Professor of Biology Lee Caldecutt, who had been his teacher in the Collegiate Program more than a decade earlier. They remained in touch of the years and Roberts decided to enroll in Caldecutt’s Anatomy and Physiology I course, hoping to move toward a career in healthcare administration in a therapeutic environment. Caldecutt connected him with the director of the Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) Program.

“Meeting Chase again [as an adult] was surreal because he was so very different — yet so the same,” Caldecutt explained. “He had the same great sense of humor, but was also so driven and so focused, and he wanted to be the very best at what he was going to do.”

His return to Orlando Health ORMC Institute for Advanced Rehabilitation was a surreal experience for his therapists too.

“I’ll never forget the day he said he wanted to come back to Orlando Health to work,” Clinical Specialist Kristen Cezat said. “I thought it was an amazing goal, but I don’t always get to see people make the full recovery like Chase made. We supported every second of that goal and I was just hopeful that one day that goal would come true.”

“It’s a whole new relationship now that we’re getting to build,” she added of Chase’s return to the hospital as a student. “It’s fun to transition through Chase’s journey and see so many different aspects from therapist, to friend, to now colleague.”

Roberts shared that in addition to the quality education, rigorous training, and supportive faculty of Polk State OTA’s Program, the College also provides an abundance of valuable clinical education opportunities, like the opportunity to intern at Orlando Health ORMC, through the partnerships fostered with local hospitals and healthcare facilities.

“Polk State is a very unique school. I can’t imagine a lot of places like it,” he said. “From the people in admissions all the way to my current program director, everyone has been so helpful in getting me to the next level.”

“I hope that anyone considering Polk State’s OTA Program takes that leap because it is one of the most amazing jobs you could ever have.”

For Roberts, it is rewarding to give back to others in ways that his therapists helped him.

“These people have gone through the most traumatic thing they will ever go through. It’s your job to put them back together and teach them how to be a person again because they couldn’t feel farther from the point. I know I did,” he said. “If I can extend some hope to somebody, even in the most minute amount, that gives me fulfillment.”

It was also fulfilling for Roberts to recently participate in Polk State OTA’s pinning ceremony in which members of the upcoming graduating class are honored with white coats as an initiation into the profession. Mandy Cilliers, a licensed occupational therapist for Winter Haven Hospital who provided primary care for Roberts during outpatient treatment, bestowed Roberts with his white coat on September 15. Caldecutt also celebrated with Roberts at the pinning ceremony on the Winter Haven Campus.

“He’s grateful for the opportunity to live,” Caldecutt said. “[He has this] way of flipping it to say, ‘This is the best thing that has happened to me.’ Most people would not describe becoming a quadriplegic as the ‘best thing that has ever happened’ to [them]. When you hear that, it changes you as a person. Knowing Chase… has been a life-changing experience.”

He fulfilled the promise he made to his therapists at both Winter Haven Hospital and Orlando Health ORMC Institute for Advanced Rehabilitation by returning to occupational therapy as a practitioner during his clinical studies.

“Being back here as a practitioner has been a surreal experience. Working with the same practitioners on the same team I had almost seven years ago has been enlightening,” Roberts expressed. “I’m grateful to everyone who has gone out of their way to help and teach me. I have learned more about spinal cord injuries in the last three weeks here than I did for more than seven years of having one myself.”

Roberts will receive his Associate in Science in Occupational Therapy Assistant in December and plans to complete six more classes to achieve the Bachelor of Applied Science in Supervision in Management with a concentration in Healthcare Administration.

He currently serves as an anatomy and physiology tutor for the Lakeland Campus Science Department. This job is especially meaningful, as his mother, Kelly, works in the College’s Teaching Learning Computing Center as a Teaching Lab Assistant and is now a colleague; she has been a constant source of support and encouragement throughout the entire process of recovery. He is simultaneously completing his final clinical rotations at Orlando Health ORMC Institute for Advanced Rehabilitation, where he serves on the same floor where he was once a patient.

“I had a patient in the same room that I was in, and it was a little scary walking into that room again,” Roberts said. “But it was the best feeling to go in there as a teacher of somebody going through a similar issue that I had because I can identify with them and coach them through things that were best for me. I preface it with every spinal cord injury is different. I tell them don’t look at what I had as a metric for what you have, but I do understand the symptoms you’re going through, and I will help you with everything I have been taught.”

In addition to achieving his degree and becoming a licensed occupational therapy assistant, Roberts aspires to raise awareness about spinal cord injuries. An avid Superman enthusiast, he cites the man and hero as inspiration:

“Christopher Reeve changed the game. Now that he’s gone, somebody needs to pick up that torch and take it a few more steps,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can in order to be that person.”

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