Dec. 19, 2013
By Michael Kasiborski
She could not stop the tears. Quite frankly, it would have made even the most hardened of us melt.
All he wanted to do was propose to his girlfriend properly. But with limited mobility -- he used a walker to get around -- getting down on one knee was arduous, if not impossible. An illness had zapped the 22 year old of some of the simple motor functions many of us take for granted.
Get down on one knee, pop the question and then stand up on his own when she said "yes." The goal motivated him, so he put in the work during intense physical therapy questions.
When the day came, his plan went off without a hitch. On bended knee he asked the love of his life to marry him. And when she said yes, he stood up without help. The littlest things led to the biggest thing of his life.
Hearing his story, Erin Cameron cried over the beauty of his triumphant spirit and touching love story. She knew some of what he had been through, and his story was so wrought with the ideals of determination, perseverance and courage, she could not hold back the tears.
Brett (we are using a pseudonym due to HIPPA laws) left an indelible mark on Cameron. She watched him toil with his physical therapist day after day so he could turn his fairy tale into a happily-ever-after. It was a life-changing moment for Brett, and it began in his physical therapist's office.
Since she was young, Cameron has wanted to be a physical therapist. Through volunteering at PT clinics, she realizes she could change lives.
"I knew I wanted to do that for people," she said. "I think about (Brett) all the time when I'm struggling, and remind myself that this is what I want to do."
Cameron, one of four captains on this season's Michigan women's swimming and diving team, had her own life changed when she was just 12 years old. Struggling with shoulder issues due to a self-described combination of a growth spurt and swimming lots of yards, she went to physical therapy to find a solution to the pain.
"They didn't know if I would be able to keep swimming, and I was really upset about it," she said.
The pre-teen Cameron put in months of work with her therapist. She was eventually strong enough and fine-tuned enough to return to swimming.
"Physical therapy allowed me to get back to doing something that I love," she said.
"Swimming has brought me to such great places -- it brought me to Michigan," she continued. "I feel like I owe all of that to my physical therapist because I wouldn't have been able to do all this without him."
So Cameron is going to pay it forward. She has been doing that since she arrived on campus, giving her time and talents through the U-M Health System's Volunteer Services. That is how she met Brett, worked with him and shared in his joy. She has worked with the young and the old in various settings and through various ailments, taking advantage of all the volunteering opportunities she could. Her volunteer rotations have taken her through several six-month appointments in the health system.
"I actually ended up following one patient from Mott Children's Hospital to Milestones (pediatric physical therapy)," she said. "I got to see his progression over one year. It was absolutely unbelievable to see him go from not being able to walk to being able to walk again. I love being able to see that."
Her latest endeavor has again allowed her to take the long view of therapy and its benefits. For the past year, she has taught a seated exercise class at the University of Michigan Aphasia Program (UMAP). Clients come from around the world to receive treatment for aphasia, a communication disorder as a result of stroke or traumatic brain injury.
Cameron's burgeoning résumé of volunteering and her experiences as a varsity student-athlete made her an ideal choice to lead the new class. The clients stay in Ann Arbor for a month and receive 24 hours of intensive therapy a week -- including speech therapy, recreational therapy and music therapy. Cameron sees them once a week and puts them through an hour of seated exercises.
According to Lisa Kraus, program services coordinator at UMAP, there is a growing body of evidence that physical training improves physical function, fitness and quality of life after a stroke.
"Erin is impressive in her ability to connect with our clients -- which takes much patience and tenacity," said Kraus. "Her tireless efforts have helped improve the quality of life for our UMAP clients."
For Cameron, she relishes the chance to help those who have been affected by stroke and other ailments. As the first person to teach the class, the responsibility fell to her to shape it. She picked the brains of therapists she has worked for during her time at U-M to design the workouts.
"(UMAP) trusts me to run this class," Cameron said, almost in disbelief. "The work I get to do there is pretty cool."
Next semester she will pass the teaching reins on to two other swimmers in the School of Kinesiology, Sharalynn Missiuna and Olivia Samoray. It is a way for her to combine her two passions at Michigan: her professional development and her team.
The team, along with the volunteer positions, has been crucial to Cameron's growth at U-M. Growing up on Michigan's west side, Cameron always wanted to swim for Michigan, but she admits that she was not fast enough until her junior year of high school. When she arrived in Ann Arbor to swim for the Maize and Blue, she never knew her dreams were only beginning to be realized.
"I feel like this team is my family," she said. "Being a captain has changed who I am as a person -- I'm more confident. I know I'll never be around a group of people who work this hard, and that is so special to me."
Cameron is poised to leave Michigan in May with her degree in movement science and take her spot in Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine physical therapy and human movement sciences program. She will spend three years earning her doctorate of physical therapy.
She will also be there with her dad, Daniel, who works in Chicago as an aircraft mechanic. He was transferred four years ago and spends most of his time away from Erin's mom, Nancy, and her three siblings, Sarah, Amanda and John, in Brownstone, Mich.
"It's hard for him to be away from our family," Cameron said. "I am excited to join him in Chicago."
She will be studying at one of America's most prestigious private universities and a top-10 physical therapy program, according to U.S. News and World Report (2012).
"Northwestern will be challenging in the classroom, but I know I've been prepared very well at Michigan," she said.
For now, Cameron will continue to hit the water twice a day for the Wolverines, refining her technique as she builds toward championship season. There are early mornings, strenuous sessions and sore muscles. But there is also the memory of Brett getting down on one knee. There is the little boy walking without a walker. There is the stroke patient regaining some quality of life.
Each day brings about its own challenges. Through struggles and success, there will be tears. Cameron, the compassionate caregiver, will be creating a world with a lot more happy tears.