Governors State University’s Dr. Roberta “Robbie” O’Shea embodies the very mission adopted by the Physical Therapy program she has helped shape and mold over the last two decades.
“Everybody should have access to care,’’ said O’Shea, a pediatric disabilities advocate and researcher, who instructs her students in the GSU College of Health and Human Services Program to align their metaphorical money with their mouths.
“I tell my students they have to treat that person who says, ‘I don’t have any money but I have chickens in my backyard.’ Why? Because a dozen eggs is expensive, and if you’ll pay me in a dozen eggs, that’s five bucks I don’t have to spend at Jewel. That’s our mission here,” said O’Shea, a founding faculty member of the GSU Physical Therapy program.
O’Shea’s own childhood health challenges—she was diagnosed with scoliosis and underwent surgery for it during high school—along with her work with families raising children with special needs inspired her work in physical therapy as well as special education. In her three-decade career, O’Shea has presented her research on the international stage, served on state-wide committees, and yet remains committed to helping those who can’t help themselves—even if they can’t pay.
In 1999, O’Shea joined the faculty at GSU, where she later earned a doctorate in Physical Therapy. Before coming to GSU, she had studied and researched at the University of Illinois.
Though much of her career has been focused on children with disabilities, O’Shea recently expanded her research to include adults. With the help of a GSU grant, O’Shea served as co-principal investigator in a 10-week ground breaking study of adult stroke victims who received Conductive Education therapy as opposed to traditional interventions. The study was performed at the Center for Independence through Conductive Education, where O’Shea sits on the board of directors.
GSU Newsroom: What is Conductive Education therapy?
O’Shea: Conductive Education began in Budapest Hungary and is well known in other parts of the world, but it's not as prevalent in the U.S. because of limited research.
It’s a unique, intensive method of special education designed to promote active learning and maximized functional independence for children, traditionally, who are attempting to overcome motor disabilities resulting from conditions including stroke, cerebral palsy, or traumatic brain injuries.
Conductive Education looks at disability from a learning point of view, and there are a few key differences from other interventions. One is that it's always done in a group setting with people of like ability. This grouping allows a natural competition to encourage members to move in sync with one another. If one person doesn’t participate, the group doesn’t move on. It’s positive peer pressure.
Then there’s the lingo. They use rhythmic intention—giving commands to an eight-beat count. It’s a cadence to take people from sitting to standing, for example. We’ll say, ‘I need to put my feet flat; I need to straighten my trunk; I need to shift my weight forward; and I need to stand up.’ Everything is repeated three times so it’s embedded in their brain and learned.
GSU Newsroom: What did the 10-week study find and why is it important?
O’Shea: We found huge changes in brain connectivity. So the parts of the brain that were working but had weak connections got stronger and new connections were made.
We worked with four chronic stroke victims—meaning they’d had a stroke more than a year ago—over a 10-week period for two hours a week to work on hand function, and we did MRI testing to record changes. Traditional, standardized physical therapy outcome measures say the changes were not significant, but one of our guys reported he opened the refrigerator door by himself. He said, ‘I opened it without thinking about it.’ That’s spontaneous movement. It’s life changing. It means he can catch himself if he falls, and his caregiver’s burden has been lessened.
GSU Newsroom: What do you like about working with the Center for Independence?
O’Shea: The reason I connected with the Center for Independence is because the Center did what I always wanted to do with my degrees in Physical Therapy and Special Ed. It melded the two into one place. When I started15 years ago, therapy wasn't focused on the life span. The focus was on clients going to therapy and rehabilitation and probably needing it for the rest of their lives. With the Center for Independence, the whole idea is you can learn to use your body in a different way. Yes, the client may always need therapy, but they won’t need it constantly. They can determine their own destiny. That’s what the Center espouses.
GSU Newsroom: What outcomes do you want from the new Center office in Homewood?
O’Shea: The Southland is a desert for all therapy that’s not hospital or school-based. There aren’t enough people whose children need therapy who have great insurance or cash endowments to pay, so it’s hard to maintain a pediatric program.
I’d like to take this Conductive Ed program, this holistic program, and make it accessible to people in the Southland because they deserve it, too.