Debbie Ingram: Five Minutes with This Remarkable PT Alumna
Why did you choose physical therapy (PT) as your professional field? Why did you select Georgia State University for your education?
My grandmother lived with us when I was young. She had rheumatoid arthritis and later complications led to an amputation. We used to love to watch the soap operas back in the late 1960’s. One of them featured a physical therapist helping someone with walking. My grandmother suggested that this might be a career for me. I was only 13 years old when I began the journey to become a PT.
I applied to the physical therapy program at Georgia State University as an out-of-state student residing in Tennessee. The campus was only two hours from our family farm. I wanted to live in a big city and I loved Atlanta. You may find this funny and I am clearly showing my age, I-75 South ended at Cartersville and I had to take the back roads through Marietta to get to I-285! The interstate was completed later in 1977 or early 1978!
Tell us the scope of your work in physical therapy.
I was one of the original PT faculty members hired in 1990 to establish the PT program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). We were the second PT program in Tennessee. There are now five Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) programs in our state. I am the Director of Clinical Education and a UC Foundation Professor. I coordinate the clinical placements for our 90 doctoral students. We affiliate with over 200 sites across the country. I also teach the management, psychosocial, education and communication coursework. I have taught around 800 physical therapists practicing mostly in the South.
I am a volunteer and that is evident in my professional experience. Previous roles include: Chairman of the Tennessee Occupational and Physical Therapy Board of Examiners and their board consultant, Vice President of the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy and member of the Board of Directors and Chairman of the Education Committee, original member of the Board of Directors of the Foreign Credentialing Commission on Physical Therapy, academic co-chair of the American Physical Therapy Association Clinical Education Special Interest Group, member of the Education Section Board of Directors, Federal Affairs Liaison for education section of the APTA, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Physical Therapy Association.
I am currently serving on the APTA’s public policy and advocacy committee–a group of 15 physical therapists who serve in an advisory role to the APTA board of directors. I am also the chair of the physical therapy professional standards for the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools (CGFNS International). I review manuscripts for the Journal of Physical Therapy Education (JOPTE) and the Physical Therapy Health Policy and Administration Journal. I was part of a team of authors who were awarded the Stanford Award by the Education Section of the APTA for the most influential publication in JOPTE in 2011. So far this year, I have two manuscripts accepted for publication. I’m hoping for more!
Tell us about your work history.
I began my career as a staff physical therapist at Erlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga, Tenn. Erlanger is a level one trauma center. I was their Director of Rehab Services when I left to join the faculty at UTC. Until a couple of years ago, I continued to do PRN work for Erlanger. I enjoyed working at the hospital.
In June, you will receive the Catherine Worthingham Fellow designation, the highest honor among APTA’s members. What does it mean for you to receive such a prestigious award?
It is a most humbling experience for me to receive this award from the APTA. There has never been a day that I have regretted the decision to become a physical therapist. It is a rewarding profession that truly helps people whose lives have been changed because of disability and disease. We do so many wonderful things for society.
The APTA website includes this description of the award:
“Catherine Worthingham, PT, PhD, FAPTA, was a change agent who was effective, respectful, and honest, and motivated others to make an impact within the physical therapy profession. She was also a visionary who demonstrated leadership across the domains of advocacy, education, practice, and research. The purpose of the Catherine Worthingham Fellow designation (FAPTA) is to honor Dr. Worthingham and inspire all physical therapists to attain the high level of professional excellence and impact in terms of advancing the profession she exemplified. The FAPTA designation is the highest honor among APTA’s membership categories.”
How has Georgia State prepared you to become so successful in physical therapy? Are there any faculty members you would like to recognize?
I was very lucky to get into the PT program at Georgia State. The funny thing is that I didn’t get into the program in Tennessee! I guess you could say it was a blessing because I had a great experience at Georgia State.
I was taught by some gifted physical therapists. Gordon Cummings was a mentor to all of us. We nominated him for the PT Educator of the year award offered by the Education Section of the APTA. He won this award the year before he died. All of us helped to establish a scholarship in his memory. Dr. Randy Walker began teaching at Georgia State the year I began the PT program. Randy is our program director at UTC and we have been working together for 23 years. He is a wonderful program director. I still visit with Dr. Susan Effgen annually at conference. She was my research project advisor in 1978-79 and she is a noted textbook author.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other great faculty–Pat, Pearl, Orson, Jim, Sally, Ann, Sherry, etc. I still visit annually with one of my former clinical instructors, Dr. Terry Malone. I participated in a sports clinical experience at UNC Chapel Hill and spent a week with Terry at the sports PT clinic at Duke University. I’ve also kept up with one of the clinical instructors at West Texas Rehab Center in Abilene, Texas where I participated in a neurorehab experience. Georgia State’s clinical connections were awesome! I now send students to some of the same places like Shepherd Center and Emory.
How have you stayed in touch with Georgia State? Why is so important to stay in touch?
The PT Class of 1979 has regular reunions! We started year one at Stone Mountain and have continued hosting the events at least every 5 years. In fact, four of us from my PT class (Debbi Shapiro Chartash, Tracey Adler, Elaine Weisner and I) just spent a few days on Fripp Island and we called many of our classmates just to catch up and begin plans for our next reunion. Our biggest surprise was to hear from Major General Michael Nagata who was a classmate of ours! He sent us an email at the beach! There is no telling where he was in the world when he sent that note! We are just so proud of him and the work he is doing for our country. He is our hero!
I think it should be evident to the readers that our PT class of 22 people was special. We were constantly together for the two years of the program. Looking back over the past 34 years since graduation, we have maintained those special friendships.
What do you do when you are not working? What are your hobbies, projects, and community service?
I am very involved in the University of Tennessee Alumni Association. In 2007-08, I served as the national alumni president representing the 325,000 alumni of our campuses. During that year, I traveled with our university president all over the country talking about the importance of a college education. In our state of Tennessee, only 21% of adults have earned a four year college education.
I have also served on the university’s development committee and currently serve on the UT Alliance of Women Philanthropists Board. On a local level, I serve on our largest social services agency that has the sexual assault center and domestic violence shelter. I just finished serving as the search committee chairman for the new athletic director at UTC. I am the university’s faculty athletics representative to the NCAA and the Southern Conference. I serve as the chair of the UTC athletics board.
My husband David and I have been married for 34 years. We have a 24 year old daughter (Alex) and she finishes graduate school on May 9. As a family, we love to travel.
The craziest thing I’ve done–Alex and I were clowns in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade!
Any plans for the future that you can share?
Who knows what tomorrow may bring! I’m not ready to retire. I think I’m busier today than in previous years.
Any words of wisdom for the students in our program?
Follow your dreams. Georgia State gave me the opportunity to pursue my dream of becoming a physical therapist. I wasn’t the smartest student in my class. I didn’t make perfect grades. I worked hard and I still work hard today.
Maintain your membership in the American Physical Therapy Association. Choose to volunteer and help the profession and other organizations that impact the public we serve. Join other boards. They need opinions of physical therapists, too! I’m often the only physical therapist on a board. People introduce me as a PT. And, that’s a good thing. I am proud to be a physical therapist.
My grandmother had an 8th grade education. It was very important to her that her children complete their education. All eight children graduated from high school; seven went to college; five earned master’s degrees and two earned doctorates. The legacy followed because we as the grandchildren were raised by parents who valued education.