Laura Garza calls it the career opportunity of a lifetime.
"I have always wanted to be a physical therapist and going to the Center for the Intrepid has further solidified that this is my calling in life," she said.
The University of Texas-Pan American junior was handpicked to observe at The Center for the Intrepid (CFI) in San Antonio, an advanced outpatient rehabilitation center which blends therapy, simulation, and extreme sports to treat United States servicemen and women who have served in military operations.
"I was selected most likely because I was so determined and asked for the position myself," Garza said.
Dr. Juan Gonzalez, kinesiology coordinator at UTPA, organized the unusual Spring Break internship for Garza. He forged a strong partnership five years ago with CFI, after he began setting up private tours of the center for UT Pan American kinesiology, pre-physical therapy and occupational therapy students.
"The intended purpose of the tour is to get our UTPA students exposed to the latest state-of-the-art technology. This is a world class facility in the area of physical and occupational therapy. The students learn not only from a clinical, but from a research perspective," Gonzalez said.
CFI is now an integral part of Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston. The facility provides training to help disabled servicemen use prosthetics, reintegrate with society and perform daily tasks. Garza said the experience was stirring and heart-wrenching.
"The wounded warriors obviously had severe injuries and disabilities, but they never used that as an excuse. Each day they went into the center and worked hard for hours. The ultimate goal was to get home to their families or back to their unit," the 21-year-old said. "I would have to say that seeing the amount of work they put into their sessions every single day was an inspiration."
Garza said the internship reinforced her desire to become a physical therapist, especially when she witnessed severely injured military heroes pouring their heart and soul into their rehabilitation.
"I want nothing more at this point in my life than to become a physical therapist, and the knowledge and experience that I can gain from the best will help me fulfill those goals," she said. "I am very fortunate to find something that I love and something that I am so passionate about."
The Edinburg native and rehabilitative services major said the CFI offers an extraordinary brotherhood and support system for each one of the injured fighters.
"There is a connection between the patients. They push one another during their therapy sessions and do not feel sorry for themselves or each other, but rather push each other to finally reach their goals," Garza said.
The goal of the care provided at CFI is to maximize the potential of wounded warriors whether or not they choose to remain on active duty or return to civilian life. Gonzalez said UTPA students get a rare glimpse into the rehabilitation process and the tours can also lead to career prospects.
"They get the opportunity to meet the staff that actually works with the wounded soldier," Gonzalez said. "It also presents an opportunity to consider entering the Army PT program which would actually pay the student while they are going through the physical therapy training."
Another group of students is gearing up to visit the CFI in Fall 2012.
"This experience gives our UTPA physical therapy students a jump start on their careers by expanding their horizons in terms of the latest physical therapy modalities and what our military is doing for our wounded soldiers," Gonzalez said. "Our students have been given the opportunity to bridge the gap between theory in class and real world applications."
Garza said she will always treasure the rare chance to go into a facility with cutting edge research and state of the art treatment for seriously wounded armed forces personnel.
"I had the opportunity to spend two weeks with some of the most amazing and inspiring people I have ever met. Even though some of them were tired or in pain that was no excuse to give less than their very best," she said.
For more information on the CFI tours call (956) 665-2115 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Tours typically are for students who are on a pre-physical or occupational therapy track.