From equestrian jockey to physical therapist: how this MUSC graduate is giving back to her country

Samantha Paternoster
May 25, 2021
Vanessa Fry on a horse as a jockey
Before coming to MUSC, Vanessa Fry was an accomplished equestrian jockey. 

Vanessa Fry graduates this year from MUSC as a Doctor of Physical Therapy – a dream she realized while recovering from a career-ending injury.

Prior to becoming an MUSC student, Fry rode horses on the racetrack for three years before her career as an accomplished equestrian jockey took off in 2013. The following summer, her career was cut short when she broke her leg in three places just before a race. Over the next two years, she required three surgeries and extensive physical therapy.

Vanessa Fry 
Vanessa Fry, DPT Class of 2021.

"I had received physical therapy at five different locations and had many different physical therapists. Some who were truly devoted to patient care and some just punching a clock," says Fry. When it came time to decide what to do next in her career, physical therapy seemed like an obvious choice. "I had been in recovery for so long that I couldn't go back to riding horses, and I remember thinking, I could do this, I could really help people."

Fry began taking steps to become a physical therapy assistant.

While still recovering, she was hired as a technician at the facility where she was receiving treatment. There she met David Morrisette, PT, Ph.D., a professor in the Division of Physical Therapy at MUSC. Morrisette's belief in Fry pushed her dream to the next level. "He outlined the steps I needed to take to be a physical therapist and said the hard work was up to me to do," says Fry. "True to his word, anything I needed, he gave me guidance."

As a student, Fry participated in and led multiple organizations, won several awards and scholarships, underwent and recovered from hip replacement surgery during the didactic portion of school, and held two jobs – all while maintaining a 3.5 GPA.

Being a student at MUSC strengthened Fry's belief in the importance of giving back. Having a therapy dog of her own, she chose to share that experience with others in need. She was also a mentor in Creating Opportunity & Academic Success for Tomorrow's Therapists (COAST), reaching out to underrepresented minority students in high school and college to guide them into the health professions. "Before my injury, I didn't know anything about the physical therapy career field," says Fry. "COAST is just another way that we can mentor the next generation."

Her time spent serving on the board of CARES Therapy Clinic truly solidified her passion for the field. With support from faculty members like Gretchen Seif, PT, DPT, and Sara Kraft, PT, DPT, the student-run CARES Therapy Clinic provides pro-bono physical, occupational, and speech therapy treatments for underinsured and uninsured individuals in the Charleston area.

"Being a physical therapist is more than punching a clock. I already knew that, but CARES put that in my heart," says Fry. "We're entrusted with people's well-being. We have to do our duty and be as educated as possible so we can give them the care they deserve."

Now an MUSC graduate, Fry is looking forward to working at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in downtown Charleston, but she's also speaking to recruiters about joining the Navy as a physical therapist.

"You never get to where you're going on your own," says Fry. "Anytime I can look back to help someone else, I will. I won't let anything hold me back from being the person I want to be."

As for her favorite memory at MUSC? She recalls her anatomy professor, Jackson Thomas, PT, Ed.D., taking the class out to celebrate after their first semester test. "He still does it for every class. He was invested in us beyond making sure we passed. He really cared about us as individuals," says Fry.

Her advice to incoming students is to get ready to do the hard work but know that you'll have all the support you need along the way.

About the Author

Samantha Paternoster

Keywords: Physical Therapy, Student Story