Getting Muddy for a Good Cause

Every year, during her lecture on narrative clinical reasoning, Andrea Tyszka, MS, OTR/L, SIPT, reads her class a story about a woman with multiple sclerosis (MS). The narrative describes the woman’s persistent battle with chronic pain, periods of fluctuating and overwhelming fatigue, and the daily struggle to be a full-time mom, wife, occupational therapist and university faculty member. The story is about Tyszka and acts as a powerful tool for the Occupational Therapy (OT) associate professor. It shifts her students’ view of her as a teacher to a patient. It also was the impetus behind the idea for one of the University’s latest fundraising traditions.

“A lot of people are very reluctant to disclose their MS diagnosis at work or to share it with their students, but I think it’s going to make them better OTs because they have a humanistic view of disability,” she said. “They see me as a person first and don’t see this label of disability as central to my being. My diagnosis is sort of on the periphery for them. I think that’s a good thing for them moving forward in their careers to be able to put their patients first as people and as patients secondary.”

After the first time she shared her narrative with her class, she was approached by one of her students. Eric Reuter, MSOT ’16, was greatly affected by her openness to discuss her condition. He opened up about a close family friend who also had MS and about an annual fundraising event for the National MS Society. From that initial conversation, a three-year tradition was born. Salus University has participated in MuckFest, a muddy obstacle course challenge, and raised more than $11,000 for MS research, all in support of Tyszka and those with MS.

“When she spoke to our class about her journey of living with MS, our hearts went out to her,” Reuter said. “The Student Occupational Therapy Association (SOTA) board and I decided it was our responsibility to find a way to support her and others who were living with MS.”

Prior to the first MuckFest event in 2015, Tyszka thought it was a nice gesture that her students wanted to form a team in her honor. She was anticipating just a handful of students sacrificing their gym clothes to race through the mud together. But after more discussion with Reuter and SOTA, the idea grew dramatically.

Muckfest OT Students
“There has to be a professional in each of our programs who will come in contact with someone with MS,” Tyszka recalls Reuter saying. “Why wouldn’t we do it with the whole school?”

“The very first year we started the team, Eric and SOTA rallied students from all four colleges, and there were 71 people on the team,” she said. “Every year I’m shocked that they keep it going and the next group of students decides that it’ll be their fundraiser for the year. It’s very humbling they keep picking this up and moving it forward.”

In 2015, MuckFest earned high honors at the student-organized Salus Awards Gala. The activity won the Social Event of the Year Award, which is presented to a student organization that has provided a remarkable opportunity for students to encourage involvement and to interact positively with their peers and the Salus community as a whole. SOTA individually also earned the Crozier Cup Student Organization of the Year Award, named for John J. Crozier, OD ’48, former Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) vice president and dean of Student Affairs, who was noted for his dedication to instilling the virtues of professionalism, responsibility and pride in students. The following year, SOTA won the Spirit of Salus Community Service Award for the same event.

Tyszka has made a lasting impression on her students both inside and outside of the classroom. It’s because of her diligent care for her students that they rally around her, not only during MuckFest, but every day.

Muckfest - Andrea“During our first year of the OT program, we had Andrea for most of our classes and she is essentially our ‘OT mom,’” said Amanda Feinberg ’18OT, current SOTA president. “She is always looking out for us. She has a great personality and can light up a room. She provides real-life examples, which makes her classes so much fun. Since she has done so much for us as students, we wanted to do something for her.”

It’s tough to find the right words to express how humbling it is to have her students devote so much of their own time and energy into making MuckFest a success, Tyszka said reflecting upon the past three years.

“When the students that you’re trying to inspire end up being the ones that inspire you, there’s nothing like that,” she said. “It solidifies for me that Salus really is a family, and we truly care about and support each other.”