December 12, 2022

Track star to physical therapist, Warrior takes the gold

Haley Boccomino, doctor of Physical Therapy, in their graduation regalia.
Haley Boccomino wearing their doctor of physical therapy graduation regalia.

Post-board examination — and officially a physical therapist — Haley Boccomino is light, content and full of excitement while sipping a latte in the Wayne State Student Center Starbucks. “I wasn’t always like this,” laughed Boccomino, who uses they/them pronouns. “I’m just so proud of myself and so excited for what’s to come.”

Boccomino will soon officially be a graduate of Wayne State University’s Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, and their doctor of physical therapy (DPT) will be the second degree they’ve received from Wayne State.

Meet Haley

Boccomino is a first-generation graduate school student. Raised by two teachers, the importance of education was instilled in them from a young age.

Before becoming a Warrior, they received their associate degree from Macomb Community College, where they also ran track and cross country. Boccomino then transferred to WSU after being offered an athletic scholarship, and competed on Wayne State's track team.

“At first, Wayne State was a school of convenience; it was close to my home of Warren, I could run on the track and cross-country team and they offered me financial assistance,” said Boccomino. “And I love the diversity of Detroit and the university. Personally, that’s something I really value. So, WSU hit all the bars when it came time for me to transfer. It was everything I wanted out of a school.”

Haley wearing their white coat and laughing.
Haley donning their white doctor's coat.

Before they knew it, WSU turned out to be everything and then some.

Having graduated with their bachelor’s in kinesiology from the Wayne State College of Education, Boccomino elected to stay at Wayne State in pursuit of their DPT. “I fell in love with the university,” they said with a smile. “I love being here, in the middle of the city. If I had known what I know now, I would’ve picked WSU for other reasons than I originally did.”

Those reasons include the campus community, Midtown location, and the various student activities and volunteer opportunities available.

“Wayne State shaped me as a person and refined my interests and passions. Not only for physical therapy, but as an overall individual,” they added.

It isn’t just athletics, competitiveness, intelligence and an unwavering determination that makes Boccomino tick; they also are a caring, open-minded person who values diversity and inclusion as a result of firsthand experience. “I came out [as non-binary] during my grad school experience,” said Boccomino. “I think I would have kept my personal and professional life separate if I hadn’t felt comfortable.”

In a cohort of 40, Boccomino grew close with their classmates, whom they first came out to. “They supported and encouraged me to go to the faculty and to Program Director Kristina Reid, who then asked me what I needed and told me she had my back.”

Everything they have experienced since that brave moment has been nothing short of understanding, encouraging and inclusive. And it largely shaped their experience – at Wayne State and beyond.

Haley in their graduation regalia.
Haley wearing their graduation regalia. 

“It’s very important to me to show patients, as well as current and future DPTs, that there’s someone like them. I came into grad school cautious because I don’t think I look a whole lot like someone who would go to grad school,” admitted Boccomino. “I don’t really fit in. So, I was hesitant to put myself out there even more in a sense. But honestly, it was the best experience.”

They continued to reflect on how coming out enhanced everything they did moving forward, including their passion for the physical therapy profession. And it’s that passion and openness that has driven Boccomino in everything they’ve done since.

“I think it’s so important that I feel comfortable. So, to me, it’s important to be visible,” said Boccomino. “Knowing that I could help someone coming down that road makes me more comfortable. I’ve already had professors reach out to me and say they knew how to treat a patient because of me; that makes me emotional. It reminds me why I’m doing this.”

Why this? Coming full circle

Boccomino started PT school thinking they were going to work with athletes. As an athlete – a rather accomplished Warrior runner, in fact – they were intrigued by the relationship between physical therapists and athletes. “I realized how expansive the profession actually is. A lot of times people think of PT and the first thing that comes to mind is post-injury or surgery rehab. The focus is more on outpatient treatment, where you go home at the end of the day. I don’t think a lot of people, myself included at first, are familiar with the inpatient side of PT.”

Haley and four other members of their WSU DPT cohort.
Haley with members of their WSU DPT cohort. 

The inpatient side of PT is an unknown world to many, especially inpatient neurology, which frequently involves spinal cord injuries, amputees and stroke recoverees.

A clinical rotation at the Detroit Medical Center solidified their affinity for inpatient neurology. “I worked with patients who had spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, pretty severe strokes. And I just really appreciated the relationship-building aspect of that care. You’re with these people at a very low point in their life and you get to know them on a deeper level than, let’s say, athletes, and that’s a draw for me,” Boccomino said.

That difference is what made them fall in love with the neurology specialty of PT. The unpredictability of the brain, the creativity required for treatment, the diversity of cases, and the connection between physical therapists and patients drove Boccomino to pursue this specialization.

It wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows

Halfway through their first year in Wayne State’s DPT program, they were struggling with the workload. “I didn’t feel like I was mastering the material well enough to put it into clinical practice. I was learning it, for sure, but you need to work with the material on a different level than I was at the time,” Boccomino reflected. “So, I went part time my first year. And I really struggled with that. I felt like I wasn’t good enough to do this.”

Haley and their brother sitting atop the big concrete W on Wayne State's campus
Haley and their brother at Wayne State.

Like most type-A students who perform well as undergraduates, it’s often glossed over how difficult of an adjustment graduate school learning can be.

“Though I look back now and know it worked out, in the moment, going part time didn’t feel great. But, like with everything else, I know it all happened for a reason and led me to where I am now, and I wouldn’t change a thing,” said Boccomino, who felt confident and ready when they sat for their board exam. “The extra time in the program was so good for me. It really allowed me to explore myself and grow close with the faculty. And I feel like I got additional experiences that I otherwise wouldn’t have had the time to dedicate to.”

Student centered and driven by real relationships and mentorships, Wayne State aims to make all their students  career ready in a manner that works for them. And Boccomino can attest to that.

“My thought was: OK, if I’m going to be part time, I’m going to do other things to fill that time. So, I put my hand in everything. I highly encourage this as an option for anyone who feels like they need more time. We’re so fortunate that Wayne State even has this! It’s rare, and if you take that option, it doesn’t make you lesser. In fact, I would argue that it will make you a better clinician.”

Haley and their brother standing by the big gold WARRIORS sign on Wayne State's campus.
Haley and their brother at Wayne State's campus.

Muscles and brains: what’s to come

Well-suited to their empathic and compassionate nature, Boccomino looks forward to learning and helping patients reach their physical therapy goals. “I want my future patients to set the tone for how I treat them,” they added. “If their goal is to go to family Christmas, then that’s my goal for them. If someone’s an athlete who had a stroke and wants to get back to running, I’ll get them there, even if it may look a little different than it did before.”

On Jan. 1, Boccomino will begin a neurologic physical therapy residency at the DMC’s Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan. They look forward to the exposure to different types of rehabilitative neurology. “For example, there are patients with different neuroglial needs, from amputees and post-surgical patients to spinal cord injuries and cases at the Children’s Hospital. I’m excited to have those additional experiences and to continue to be open-minded like I did when I fell in love with this specialty.”

At the end of the 13-month residency, Boccomino will sit for another board examination. Upon passing, they will be considered a specialist in neurological physical therapy.

“I just love it here,” they added. “I want to stay in Detroit. Like I said, if I had known what I know now, I hands-down still would’ve picked Wayne State. In fact, that’s why my brother came here — I couldn’t stop talking about it.”

Through their experience, Boccomino knows that the series of unexpected events — and everything that’s yet to come — reiterates that they’re exactly where they’re meant to be. And they are content, confident and excited for the future.

By Katheryn Kutil

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