By Harry Minium

Claire Stephens was a high school student in Virginia Beach trying to figure out what to do with her life when she visited relatives in long-term care facilities. She knew whatever career path she chose would involve helping people.

And then she saw physical therapists working with elder patients.

"I didn't know physical therapy was even a job," she said. "I could just really see the impact physical therapists can have on patients and their families. And the impact is really deep."

Claire went to James Madison University, then enrolled in the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program at Old Dominion University. Enrolled isn't quite the right word. Out of nearly 500 applicants, she was one of 42 students selected for a place in the class of 2024.

On Sept. 24, she took part in the annual "White Coat Ceremony" at the University Theatre, where the class of 2024 ceremoniously was presented with white coats by "big buddies," members of the class of 2023 who act as mentors.

Stephens' coat was placed on her shoulders by Charisse Castinado Potter.

Before students hit the stage, they listened to an 18-minute presentation from Andy Wallach and his wife, Cynthia Faschini. Wallach is a living, walking example of the miracles that licensed therapists can perform.

Wallach was driving an ATV in Aruba two years ago when he crashed into a telephone pole. Faschini broke a leg but Wallach broke one leg in three places, and his foot was connected to his leg only by a little skin and flesh. After months of treatment, doctors gave him a 50% chance of living a year. And walk? No. Doctors said the 74-year-old man would be in a wheelchair the rest of his life.

"The first few months, I was really down," he said. "I thought maybe I should just get in my electric chair and drive off the sea wall."

But about a year ago, he began treatment at Monarch Physical Therapy, ODU's clinic where students work side-by-side with licensed therapists.

Wallach has been treated by a dozen or so therapists, including Ryan Hunt, but Maggie Cody has done the majority of work with him, pushing him beyond what he thought he could do.

Andy Wallach is Walking Again Thanks to Monarch PT

He is walking with the help of a walker and has begun walking up steps. Recently, he began working out at the ODU Student Recreation Center and walked the entire length its 500-foot track with the help of Abby Sarmiento, a third-year ODU PT student.

"When I suggested it, I said, 'Let's do it in two weeks,' but he said, 'No, I'm doing it today,' " Sarmiento said. "He stopped a few times to rest, but he just wouldn't quit until he got around."

When ODU's new Health Sciences Building opens in 2023, Wallach plans to walk into the facility hand in hand with Faschini. They have given $2 million to create the Faschini Wallach Center for Restorative Therapies in the new building.

Sept. 24 had already been a long day of therapy and exercise for him, but he insisted on walking to the podium and standing throughout his presentation.

"Since the event, my life has been better than before," he said. "My appreciation, my admiration and love for my wife Cynthia is much greater than it was two years ago. I am closer to my children.

"I was in my twilight years, floating down the lazy river. Now, I am fighting the rapids and I am winning. Satisfaction comes from accomplishment. Without challenges, one atrophies."

The audience of perhaps 250 students, family members and faculty were stone silent and some dabbed tears as he spoke, especially when he spoke of Faschini, whose life for the first 18 months after the accident consisted entirely of caring for her husband.

"It was not easy for Andy to rise from his wheelchair, walk across the stage and stand with Cynthia as they shared their inspiring story," said Lisa Koperna, director of Monarch PT. "It was a milestone in Andy's recovery and a testament to the power of faith, perseverance, love, medicine and miracles."

When Wallach and Faschini were done speaking, they drew more than 30 seconds of applause.

A video on Andy's recovery done by WVEC-TV reporter Philip Townsend was then shown.

Koperna, Clinical Assistant Professor of Rehabilitation Sciences Beth Jamali and Dean of the College of Health Sciences Bonnie Van Lunen spoke to the students. Jamali offered words of inspiration, saying: "If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life."

Chauncey Barham, a College of William & Mary graduate received his coat from Kayla LaMoy, said hearing Wallach and Faschini speak reaffirmed his decision to become a PT.

"I worked in a PT clinic as an aid for three years and I saw stories like that all the time," he said. "To listen to them, to hear their story, it was just so heartwarming. It just solidifies everything I wanted to go into PT for."

Related News Stories

Monarch Wellness Trail Program Aims to Get People Moving

Three paths are being set up on campus, and three walks will be scheduled on two days each month. (More)

Strome Students Mentor High Schoolers to Develop Entrepreneurial Solutions to Community Problems

The collaboration with Newport News Public Schools evolved over the past two years out of a social entrepreneurship course taught by Associate Dean Connie Merriman. (More)

Princeton Review Names ODU One of Best Colleges in Southeast

Student surveys cited diversity, flexible course offerings, excellent labs and dynamic campus environment. (More)