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A Touro Homecoming After Years of Experience

Debbie Mattera PT,DPT, CLT, WCC, received her BA/MA from Touro’s School of Health Sciences and returned to complete the post-professional doctor of physical therapy program.

August 10, 2016
Debbie Mattera, PT Class of 1992 and 2015
Debbie Mattera, PT Class of 1992 and 2015

As a lymphedema and oncology specialist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Mattera treated a range of patients, children and adults, with different cancers before returning to Touro to earn her doctorate. In 2015, CAPTE, the PT school accrediting body, changed the entry level degree for the field to a doctor of physical therapy. Although physical therapists already in the field were not required to return to school for this new degree, Mattera chose to of her own professional and personal volition. “I wanted to keep up with the current education,” she explained.

Mattera also found the positive aspect of this change: “I think my fellow physical therapists and I are being respected as the professionals that we are.”

That Mattera would even enter the field of physical therapy at all was almost pre-ordained: as the daughter of a physician who often took his daughter on rounds at the hospital, Mattera was naturally drawn to the health sciences from a young age. “I knew I wanted to go into medicine because of my father, but I didn’t want to go to medical school,” explained Mattera. “After working with my grandmother, who had chronic health issues, and my mother, who suffered a severe spinal injury, to help them regain some of their strength through rehabilitative exercises, I knew physical therapy was a good fit for me.” It didn’t hurt that, when she was in high school, Mattera’s father clipped an article from Newsday for her which stated that PT would be the number one profession in the year 2000.

At 16, Mattera started working toward her professional goal, earning a job with her hometown of Huntington, LI, at its recreational summer camp for adults and children with disabilities. “I immediately found it more challenging, and therefore, more rewarding, to work with this population instead of at a mainstream camp, because for these children with disabilities, it was more meaningful to have as normal a camp experience as possible,” said Mattera. “I really felt I was making a difference in the campers’ lives, and it also confirmed I was headed toward the right field.”

Mattera, who received her BA in Psychology from SUNY Albany and took pre-reqs at NYU, chose to attend Touro for her Physical Therapy degree, a Master’s at the time. “Touro had a great reputation as a rigorous school and, after being away for undergrad, I wanted to be closer to home,” said Mattera. “It was really exciting to study at Touro. It was bare bones at that time, with a tiny building that was too hot in the winter and too cold in the summer. But the camaraderie was excellent, and my peers and I formed very close bonds as we got a great education and worked toward a mutual goal.”

Mattera was a diligent student who excelled academically, earning the Touro College Student Award and the Long Island District of the APTA Award of Excellence. After she graduated, Mattera got right to work—literally. “I graduated on a Friday, and started my new job at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center that Monday. I’ve been there ever since!”

Mattera’s first position was as a staff therapist, and then she graduated to senior therapist and assistant chief of the department. Eventually, she transferred to Sloan-Kettering’s regional site in Commack, LI, since she wanted to be closer to her home after she had children. Her current title is Lymphedema Clinical Specialist.

Mattera works primarily with adult cancer patients, rehabilitating them to normal life after their chemotherapy and other cancer treatments, which often robs them of a great deal of strength. A large percentage of Mattera’s patients are recovering from lymphedema, a chronic and common side effect of cancer surgery and radiation therapy in which swelling of the arms, legs or other body parts occurs. Mattera performs complete decongestive therapy, which entails five parts: manual lymph drainage, bandaging, exercise, education (so patients can do the exercises, massage techniques bandaging and compression at home), and use of compression garments.

Mattera, who is wound care-certified, lectures for Sloan-Kettering and other places on topics in oncology, lymphedema and managing physical recovery. She also assisted with a program called “Play Fit, Stay Fit,” through Stony Brook University School of Health Technology and Management, to help children who are recovered or still recovering from cancer and cancer treatment transition back to school and camp, where sports and other physical activity feature prominently. “Chemotherapy depresses children’s normal immune systems, and they’re not exercising playing like they normally do and become weak,” explained Mattera. “Some children survived bone tumors, so they have orthopedic rehabilitation needs, too. The program worked on strengthening and conditioning children, and getting them back on the bus, so to speak.”

Of course, working with cancer patients—whether children or adults—demands a great deal of emotional energy. So how does Mattera deal with the impact of coming into close contact with the often devastating effects of cancers and its treatments on a regular basis?

“When I first started working with this population, I took my work home with me every day,” recalled Mattera. “This went on until a supervisor took me aside and said the only way to be successful at this kind of career, treating these kinds of patients, is to realize you’re helping people every single day and remain focused on the positive impact of your work. Eventually, something shifted for me, and I was able to take her advice. Some personal decision has to be reached, or you won’t be able to stay and do your job effectively.”

After CAPTE changed the entry-level PT degree to a DPT, Mattera wanted to return to school, but found it daunting to consider juggling working fulltime and parenting her pre-teens at the same time. She found wise counsel in her brother, who received his Master’s in Public Health from Columbia University while parenting small children. “My brother told me if I don’t go for it now and just push it off until some later date, I’ll never do it,” said Mattera. “He encouraged me to go for it and I’d find a way to make it work.”

And make it work Mattera did, starting SHS’s post-professional doctorate program in 2012 and spacing out her courses to 2-3 a semester. Mattera had also earned a certain number of credits thanks to her previous studies at Touro that helped advance her in the program right away. “I enjoy being a student, so returning to school was fun for me,” she said. “I even had some of the same professors, like Dr. Fran Corio, who remembered that I was a good student from my previous time at Touro.

Mattera had a different experience being a student this time around. “In the Master’s program, my peers and I were younger and had fewer responsibilities, we were together in class all day and also  hung out a lot after school and we all became very close,” said Mattera. “Many students in the post-professional doctorate program, like myself, had families and careers already, so we were all more focused on the work at hand and then meeting our other responsibilities. One experience wasn’t better than the other, just different.”

One thing that remained consistent throughout the years? “I found that the Touro education remained phenomenal,” commented Mattera. “Touro’s education is rigorous and prepares its students to be excellent therapists right away.”

Since Mattera is unique in that she had so much experience before she returned to obtain her doctorate, she is perhaps uniquely qualified to suggest some advice to new graduates of any doctorate program: “Just be open-minded when you start working,” she offered. “This field is not black-and-white, and education and practices change. Always reassess yourself and determine what’s working and what needs improvement. Doing so will only benefit your patients.”

Mattera is married to Andrea, a CPA, and they are the parents of a 12-year old girl and 10-year old boy. The family lives in Commack and, in her free time (which she admits is rather limited), Mattera enjoys quilling and creating jewelry from seashells.