Physical therapy alum helps military personnel recover from injury and return to duty.
Just a few months after graduating Widener’s physical therapy doctoral program, Alanna DiBiasi ’15 landed a job at one of the best burn units in the world.
The U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research (USAISR), housed at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, is the place where military personnel, who sustain burn injuries stateside or overseas – including in combat – are flown for treatment.
There, DiBiasi helped these men and women in uniform regain movement in their scarred limbs, and get their lives back on track.
“Working with these patients changed how I live my life,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much they were sacrificing, putting their lives on the line for us.”
DiBiasi was just 24-years-old, the youngest person on her floor at USAISR. Now at 27, she’s an orthopedic physical therapist at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, continuing to help active service members stay fit for duty.
“I wouldn’t have worked at any of these places if I had not gone to Widener,” she said.
Talented and driven, DiBiasi credits her success to Widener’s accelerated 3+3 physical therapy program – which leads to a doctorate degree in six years instead of the typical seven – as well as supportive and caring professors, life-changing clinical experiences at home and abroad, and connections forged on campus.
One such connection was with alumnus John Tilelli ’63, a retired four-star U.S. Army general and chairman of the university’s Board of Trustees. When the two met on campus, DiBiasi shared her interest in working with burn patients, and Tilelli helped her get her foot in the door at USAISR. But it was DiBiasi, he said, who pushed that door wide open.
“She has a great background and great degree, and wanted to help the young men and women who serve this country,” said Tilelli. “The Pennsylvania Military College/Widener legacy is one of leadership and helping people. You lead by helping other people get where they want to go.”
DiBiasi honed the skills and mental endurance needed to work with burn patients during her clinical rotation at Crozer-Chester Medical Center’s highly-regarded burn center, located just minutes from Widener’s campus. The work there is not easy.
“You work on people in medically-induced comas, hoping they make it out alive,” she said. “You see these burn victims, sometimes young kids…. I don’t take my arms and legs for granted anymore.”
DiBiasi remains connected to Crozer’s burn center. In addition to her fulltime work at McGuire – treating everything from back injuries to torn ACLs – she picks up occasional shifts at Crozer to keep her skills fresh.
Described as adventurous by her professors, DiBiasi was the first Widener physical therapy student to conduct a clinical rotation abroad. In 2014, with the support and help of faculty, she spent two months gaining hands-on experience in the Central American nation of Belize.
“Widener professors are amazing. If you want to pursue something, they’ll get you there. They want you to succeed,” said DiBiasi.
DiBiasi’s clinical experience in Belize paved the way for future physical therapy students to conduct clinical rotations overseas. Since 2014, students have traveled to Belize and Italy annually.
“She opened the door for students after her,” said Ellen Erdman, clinical assistant professor and director of clinical education. “Alanna's positive experience in Belize focused on collaboration and community health, as well as cultural immersion. This unique opportunity has empowered other students, and myself as well, to think globally for clinical education experiences.”