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Hands-On Approach

Physical therapist Mike Keirns is in the business of touching lives

“I’m also concerned with their mental, emotional and spiritual growth. It’s the only way I know how to be. It’s the Regis way.”

Somewhere in the heart of the Pepsi Center, Mike Keirns is earning his paycheck. He is putting Nuggets’ star Wilson Chandler through a series of movements – manipulating knees, thighs and back – so the small forward will be ready to practice.

The training room is a part of professional sports few people see. Here the lights aren’t as bright and the work isn’t as glamorous. But it’s just as essential. Strong bodies make the sharp cuts, slick crossovers and explosive dunks possible, and that’s what the people come to see.

Keirns understands this better than most. The training room is his workshop, and it is a gift to watch him ply his craft. His fingers move with the surety of a master musician, and his knowledge of the body is obvious in the way he handles it, with reverence for its capacity and respect for its limitations. But even more impressive is the way his hands work in concert with his words.

Keirns, a professor in and co-founder of Regis’ School of Physical Therapy, is constantly asking the players questions. These are sometimes casual, but other times, go much deeper. He will ask, for example, if leaders are born or formed. He enjoys watching the players turn these questions over in their minds and then challenging them to think again.

It is these intimate moments Keirns loves most about being a physical therapist. Sure, he enjoys his work. He’s been obsessed with the body and sports for as long as he can remember. But it’s the conversations he has with players when no one else is around, the opportunity to make an impact on their lives, that means most to him.

“Of course I want to help athletes maximize their physical potential,” said Keirns. “That’s my job. But I’m also concerned with their mental, emotional and spiritual growth. It’s the only way I know how to be. It’s the Regis way.”

“If the platform opens some doors for my students, that’s great,” Keirns said. “Plus, I get to show them the profession from the inside. That is a priceless experience.”

Golden Opportunity

Keirns was on a yearlong sabbatical when he got the call from the Nuggets. It was the summer of 2013, and he was using his time away to write a book, deepen his spirituality and focus on his sports medicine practice.

He’d had a relationship with the Nuggets for more than a decade, often serving as a consultant and treating players at his clinic. He knew the team valued his work, but didn’t expect to be offered a fulltime gig. The opportunity was compelling, but he was hesitant given the rigorous travel schedule. Past experiences as a PT for the University of Michigan, the Phoenix Suns and the Colorado Avalanche taught him the challenges of life on the road. He also wanted to be sure he could honor his commitments at Regis.

Keirns and the Nuggets’ management eventually worked out a compromise. When the team is home, he is at the Pepsi Center with the players. When they are away, he is on call. Players can phone him anytime to discuss physical ailments. And they do.

In the end, it was an opportunity he simply couldn’t pass up. He does the work he loves at the highest level while also generating more exposure for Regis’ Physical Therapy Program.

“If the platform opens some doors for my students, that’s great,” Keirns said. “Plus, I get to show them the profession from the inside. That is a priceless experience.”

“At Regis, students come first,” she said. “Our goal is always to help students develop as professionals and leaders, but also as individuals.”

Touching Lives

The School of Physical Therapy celebrated its 20th birthday this year. For two decades, the school and its faculty have influenced the lives of students, and indirectly, the lives of the people those students go on to serve.

Keirns is one of its founding faculty. With Dean Barbara Tschoepe and Joanne Whipple, he drew up the original curriculum.

“We had a vision of what the physical therapy profession should look like and so we created a program to match that vision,” Keirns said. “Our curriculum embraces Jesuit values like service, leadership and treating the whole person: body, mind and soul. Those values make our program one of the best in the country.”

Assistant Professor Christian Little agrees. She graduated from the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program in 2007 and came back to teach in 2010 because she believes so strongly in Regis’ mission. She was mentored by Keirns and sees herself as a mentor to the next generation of compassionate physical therapists.

“At Regis, students come first,” she said. “Our goal is always to help students develop as professionals and leaders, but also as individuals.”

One of the ways this is accomplished is the program’s intense focus on service learning, which is built into the curriculum. The program gives students the opportunity to serve in local organizations and even globally, through immersion experiences in Ethiopia, Nicaragua and Peru.

There are also opportunities that don’t count for credit, but still teach valuable lessons. For example, Keirns takes a group of volunteers to Arrupe Jesuit High School each week. There, future physical therapists work with high school athletes, most of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds, to prevent injuries.

“It’s fulfilling to see these high school students getting the same care as professional athletes,” said Keirns. “And the Regis students are growing, too. They are learning what it means to serve. As physical therapists, we literally put our hands on people. We touch them. But a great physical therapist touches people’s lives, too.”

That’s the way Keirns sees it – every interaction is an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life, whether it’s the Denver Nuggets’ star forward, a high school athlete or a Regis PT student on his or her way to great things.

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