‘Heading West’

Doctor of physical therapy student Mitchell Crenshaw went to Arizona to help patients regain their mobility — and learned from them in the process.

Katie Keegan headshot
Doctor of physical therapy student Mitchell Crenshaw ’22 pictured on a hike in Monument Valley.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Mary Baldwin Magazine.

This fall, aspiring physical therapist Mitchell Crenshaw DPT ’22 piloted the first-ever clinical placement in the Navajo Nation for MBU’s Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences.

PT students often choose a specialty in areas like orthopedics or pediatrics for their clinical rotations, but Crenshaw decided to approach things differently: He would learn how to serve members of the tribal community through the Navajo Area Indian Health Service in Kayenta, located in a remote area of northeastern Arizona.

“At first I was a tad reluctant [about not being in a more urban setting],” said Crenshaw. But talking to his professors helped him realize “what a great opportunity it would be to develop as a PT and learn about a new culture.”

Crenshaw’s resolve grew after learning about the pandemic’s toll upon the Navajo Nation. The tribe had endured some of the highest early per capita infection and death rates in the country. COVID also exacerbated long-standing problems like limited access to services and lack of equitable funding.

“Being here, my interest and passion for caring for underserved communities has really grown,” Crenshaw continued. “What speaks to me most is having the opportunity to apply the things I’ve learned [in my coursework] and hopefully make a positive impact.”

Director of Clinical Education Dr. Gail Tarleton established the partnership with Kayenta’s health service with exactly that goal in mind. “As Mitchell provides physical therapy care for patients, he is also gaining knowledge of customs, beliefs, and the social determinants of health specific to the region,” Tarleton said. He’s experiencing the ways historically marginalized populations struggle with access to quality healthcare, and learning how to best accommodate individual needs.

For example, PTs at the Kayenta clinic know most patients travel long distances across rural landscapes for appointments. (The Navajo Nation is larger than West Virginia in size.) Accordingly, they book individual sessions, boosting duration to a full hour to give therapists time to connect with patients and thoroughly explain treatments. The approach differs radically from most clinics, where as many as four patients per hour are treated to maximize productivity.

“Here I’m able to work one-on- one with clients, take them through all the interventions, and give them the personalized care that they need,” said Crenshaw, who is now considering continued work within the federal health system after graduation this May. “For me, my education has reinforced my belief in the importance of ethics and service in healthcare.”