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New legislation could mean more education for physical therapists

When Tony Hernandez was in college, he loved to play soccer. But a devastating knee injury during a game did more than sideline the athlete — it also booted him into the job he has today.

Hernandez, now 37, has been a physical therapist at Rascal Creek Physical Therapy since the early 1990s. After he had surgery on his messed-up knee, Hernandez grimaced through physical therapy and decided that it was the field he wanted to excel in.

“I was a computer science major, but I changed that to physical therapy,” Hernandez said.After getting his masters degree in physical therapy, Hernandez passed the state board examination and started practicing as a licensed therapist.

But the future is changing in physical therapy, and Hernandez is at the forefront of that change.

Sue Sulley, owner of Rascal Creek, said that there’s state legislation in the works that will allow patients to self-refer to a physical therapist. Currently, patients must have a referral from a physician before starting physical therapy.

“I think that a higher level of training is going to be essential in the future,” Sulley said, adding that students currently going through training to be a therapist do graduate with a doctorate.“If a patient does self-refer, the therapists have to know when that patient needs more help than the therapist can give,” Sulley said.

To prepare for the future, Hernandez is working on his doctorate in physical therapy and will graduate in May with a PhD. “It’s been a lot of work, a lot of driving to Fresno and San Francisco,” Hernandez said.

He’s doing a joint doctorate at both the University of California, San Francisco, and Fresno State, and said he will be the first therapist in Merced with a doctorate.

Although Hernandez himself had physical therapy for a sports injury, sports isn’t the only thing that brings people to physical therapy. Hernandez also works with those who’ve suffered industrial accidents, children with developmental problems, people who have been in automobile collisions and the elderly.

“We see a lot of elderly people who have lost their balance, and we work with them to lower their risk of falling down,” Hernandez said.

Joint replacement is another thing that brings people in for physical therapy, along with the sports injuries that a lot of young people suffer. Hernandez said many young athletes suffer knee injuries and need therapy to regain their playing strength.

Sulley said that physical therapy done today started during World War II, when veterans came home from war with horrendous injuries. She herself decided to be a therapist when she was only in the seventh grade.

“Those first therapists were actually nurses and physical education teachers, and it evolved from that,” Sulley explained.

Now that physical therapy is as advanced as it is, Hernandez believes that having a doctorate will help ensure that each patient gets exactly the therapy he needs.

“We will be more knowledgeable, able to help the patients,” he said.And he probably won’t mind if you call him “Doc.”

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or