Celebrating 50 years of PT

The School of Physical Therapy celebrates a half century of education in Saskatchewan

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1965 photo of students and staff of the new diploma course in physiotherapy practicing on each other. Credit:A-4471

A lot can happen in half a century, and for the College of Medicine’s School of Physical Therapy a lot has.

As September rolls around, the school is excitedly preparing for their 50th Anniversary celebrations and reunion, which is no small feat considering how many students the school has graduated since that first class crossed the stage in 1967.

But while the half-century anniversary is important in and of itself, Dr. Liz Harrison, the Associate Dean of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences, sees the celebrations in a broader light – one that reflects the growth of the program, the changing landscape in Saskatchewan’s health care, and the growth of research in the field of physiotherapy.

“50 years ago we were primarily very medically oriented – drugs, doctors and dentists,” Harrison explained when asked about how health care has evolved. “We were mainly dealing with keeping people alive, acute care mostly, and there wasn’t much in the community in terms of health professionals - the rural doctor was often the only provider, and often didn’t have a nurse or pharmacist to help.”

And Harrison thinks that may be one of the most important changes that the school has helped to encourage – not only an improvement in expanded health care, but an adaptation to the fact that people are living significantly longer now than when the school first opened, and require more preventative care.

“We have more needs and expectations now than 50 years ago because we’re living longer and dealing with a number of chronic diseases that impact quality of life,” Harrison continued. “Now we have people living 95 to 100, and many individuals are still retiring at 65. That knee that was sore 50 years ago for a decade is now actually going to be sore for 30 years and they want to keep golfing, playing with grandkids and, in some cases, working in the community.

“So all those services to reduce pain and improve quality of life is the real difference in the last 50 years.”

The ability of the School of Physical Therapy graduates to meet the rehabilitation needs of Saskatchewanians is a direct result of the clinical and research-based education provided by the faculty and community clinicians affiliated with the school. An impressive 80 per cent of grads remain in the province following graduation, which is helping to provide care to an aging population.

And while the first class enrollment of 20 students, the school has since doubled the enrollment, and undergone progressions in curriculum and from a diploma program to its current model as a Master’s program.

But perhaps one of the most fascinating, and lesser known, pieces of the schools’ history is more brick-and-mortar in nature – or, more precisely, the first brick-and-mortar location of the school.

“When the School was established there wasn’t space on campus, so (the school) started in a hangar building out at the airport – where the children’s rehab was,” Harrison explained. “It made sense at that point to have the physiotherapy education program near the rehab centre. So students would spend some time on campus, because they would do other university classes like psychology, and then they would jump on a bus and head out to the hangar to do their physiotherapy classes.”

The school didn’t move into its current space until the early 70’s, and even then the plan was that they’d only be in St. Andrews temporarily. But it won’t be long until they get to move across the street into their brand new digs in the Health Sciences Building.

“We’ll be celebrating that as much as we’re celebrating this anniversary,” Harrison laughed.

As for the future of the school, it ties back to first euphoric days in that hangar by the airport.

“50 years ago there was a serious need for Physical Therapy professionals and researchers to be a part of the health professional teams to help improve health care for Saskatchewan citizens – that was the incentive.”

And that’s a need that the school will continue to meet.