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Allen Roberson
After six brain surgeries to remove a rare mixed germ cell tumor, Allen Roberson of Florida has returned to cross-country running and obtained his certified medical assistant license.

Going the extra mile

Photos courtesy of Chris Boyle/The Daytona Beach News-Journal and by Ashley Barnas

Physical therapy students provide peer mentorship to Florida runner recovering from brain cancer

One February morning in 2018, Allen Roberson opened his eyes and realized he was seeing double. As a cross-country runner, he covered one of his glasses lenses with tape to get through a race. Not only did he get through it, but he also set a personal record. 

As his blurred vision persisted, doctors would ultimately make a shocking discovery. They found a rare mixed germ cell tumor in the pineal gland of his brain. Roberson would need six brain surgeries, several rounds of chemotherapy and dozens of radiation treatments, followed by a year of physical and cognitive therapies.  

“I’m here and thankful for the journey,” Roberson said. “There have been ups and downs, but it’s been amazing to live through this and share this story with others who need inspiration.”

Despite all he’s been through, Roberson is a ray of sunshine. He’s back to running and just became a certified medical assistant (CMA) — all with a little help from his friends who are 865 miles away on the University of Delaware’s STAR Campus

As part of a service-learning project, Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) students Adwaita Bhagwat, Sewina Yu and Kaitlyn Welsh volunteered to tutor Roberson on his journey to become a CMA — something he wanted to achieve to give back to the medical community. They connected on Zoom last year and were introduced through PT Associate Professor Ellen Wruble, who volunteers with the nonprofit Keep Punching, which supports patients, healthcare providers and researchers in their fight to prevent and eradicate brain cancer and minimize treatment-related side effects. 

“When I heard he was a brain cancer survivor, and he was willing to put in the effort to get his certification, I wanted to help him,” Bhagwat said. 

Wruble called the bond that blossomed a “mutual win.” 

"The bond formed between Allen and the DPT students is nothing short of inspirational," Wruble said. "Allen received social and academic support from the DPT students. In many ways, the tangible and intangible aspects of that relationship enhanced Allen's overall success and well-being. Allen showed them what daily courage looks like, and our PT students learned that when life throws you a curveball, you must pick yourself back up and try again.” 

Allen’s mother, Yvette Roberson, remembers the first day they signed on to Zoom for tutoring.

“I will never forget that day,” she said. “It has changed Allen’s life.”

The DPT students who worked with Allen most had experience in tutoring, but Allen was far from an average student. Yu had tutored student-athletes in the past. 

“The motivations were different,” Yu said. “It was interesting to explore different ways he would learn compared to others I’ve tutored. It was very rewarding.” 

Becoming a medical assistant wasn’t easy for Roberson, who has memory issues stemming from his treatment. 

“The push of support from my peers gave me the confidence to keep going,” Roberson said. 

And while there were many days they’d develop mnemonic devices to help Allen remember various medical terms, there were also days they just shot the breeze.  

“We ended up having great conversations where we learned about one another,” Welsh said. “I feel like we got more out of that than tutoring.” 

Wruble certainly sees signs of learning in her students.

Sewina Yu and Adwaita Bhagwat
Doctor of Physical Therapy students Sewina Yu (left) and Adwaita Bhagwat tutored Allen Roberson from hundreds of miles away via Zoom as part of a service-learning project, helping him on his journey to recover from brain cancer and become a certified medical assistant.

“Not only did our students learn compassion, but they also learned the importance of taking a holistic view of an individual to understand how presenting difficulties or impairments impacts their goals, dreams and desires," Wruble said. “This experience also allowed them to recognize different learning styles and modify instruction accordingly; these are all very transferable skills for PT students as they set off on their careers.” 

Bhagwat learned to be flexible.

“You can plan to work for an hour, but you have to adjust in the moment and navigate any challenges based on how he’s feeling,” Bhagwat said. 

Yu said the experience helped her build empathy. 

“I learned to let the patient guide their goals,” Yu said. “PTs, at times, can push their own agenda, and I never want to be that kind of PT, so this experience will always be in the back of my mind as I treat patients.” 

But Wruble also watched her students grow as human beings.

“Our students laughed and cried along with Allen and dealt with the ups and downs of life together,” Wruble said. “It showed them that when times are tough, and when health is not the best, it’s partnership that gets you through — it’s your village.”

Wruble wants to see this successful peer-to-peer model replicated by a national organization with the PT profession.

“Zoom traverses the distance,” Wruble said. "While this started as a tutor-student relationship, it quickly evolved into a friendship. Tutoring wasn't a 'job' for the DPT students; they were helping a friend, and that’s what life is really all about — helping others in times of need. The DPT students were passionate about seeing Allen succeed academically and realized the great privilege of being part of his journey. 

“We would love to see other health professions programs engage in activities such as this,” Wruble continued. “Offering support not readily available to individuals and communities near and afar helps solidify the social responsibility of health providers in helping maximize the wellbeing of all people.”

These hour-long Zoom calls also meant the world to Allen’s mother. 

“Allen and I do a lot together, and this experience allowed him to venture out to care for himself,” Yvette Roberson said. “He can do it, but he needed people his age to build on his confidence and show him that brain cancer doesn’t define him.” 

And Allen can back that up.

“It’s almost indescribable how much they’ve helped me; it’s life-changing,” Roberson said as he got choked up. “They gave me effective study strategies, and some days, we just got on Zoom and chatted about our day to decompress; it was so necessary to find the normal in my life at that time. We reshaped bad days into good days, and I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done for me. It’s hard to put into words how grateful I am.”

The gratitude Allen feels, DPT students feel, too. 

“Allen encourages me to focus on the good, spend more time with family and have a more positive mindset,” Welsh said.

While they’ve never met in person, the trio has formed an unbreakable bond with Roberson. 

“I’d love it if we could go to happy hour and have a margarita with Allen,” Welsh said. “That would be so much fun. I bet he’d start dancing!”  

Wruble said seeing her students grow and become so deeply invested in this relationship was gratifying.  

“They celebrated successes together, they rallied together when times were tough, and Allen was the source of inspiration,” Wruble said. “PT school is hard, and when you have someone like Allen cheering you on, your motivation only increases. Our students walked away from every meeting feeling appreciated. Allen always expressed his gratitude, and his positivity was palpable. He was the greatest and loudest cheerleader for our DPT students, and they were for him as well. They touched each other's hearts and souls — and, in the process, are earning some pretty amazing academic credentials."

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