Have you ever offered your physiotherapy skills to help with a sport and been rejected? What if it happened more than once?
Now, imagine that you are a student. You’re already balancing a rigorous program with work and volunteering and you offer your time, but you’re just not being seen as a valuable resource.
Physiotherapy student Bergen Vermette had to reflect on what was happening. “I did feel quite deflated,” he says. “I did not expect such an uphill battle offering physiotherapy to help!”
He had the skills and the will – he just needed a foot in the door.
What would you do?
Bergen Vermette is a recipient of one of two $10,000 Indigenous Student Awards awarded in 2017.
Here is why:
An opportunity to help
After he started the MPT program in 2015 at the University of Saskatchewan, Bergen volunteered for literally hundreds of hours doing sport coverage.
He worked with:
- The Saskatoon Hilltops CJFL football team
- High school football and wrestling matches
- Youth lacrosse
- Club rugby, and
- Provincial-level events through the Saskatchewan Sport Medicine Science Council (including judo and volleyball).
During the 2016/17 hockey season, Bergen was also a paid trainer for the Saskatoon Quakers hockey team. It was the team’s first use of a trainer with a physiotherapy background.
“Working with the coaching staff, we helped implement new protocols for athlete safety, including concussion management, pre-screening for musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions, and emergency action plans,” he recalls.
His experience helped him see firsthand how physiotherapy can make a real difference in helping athletes.
Eventually, one sport that didn’t seem to regularly use physiotherapists caught his eye: professional combat.
I feel like this experience can be used as an example of how students can advocate for physiotherapy and actually contribute to the profession by expanding our reach into new sports
“Historically, athletic commissions will hire ringside physicians for combat events, but not physiotherapists,” Bergen says. “However, these doctors really only require a license in family medicine, and while they do an excellent job of protecting fighters from grievous injury (including blood loss and head trauma), a sports physiotherapist can really help with assessing acute soft tissue injuries or the need for follow-up rehabilitation.”
Bergen saw the real opportunity for physiotherapy to play a role in treating athletes in combative sports.
He made the decision to travel to Alberta to meet with the Combative Sport Commission to make his case for physiotherapy. He was denied. He then traveled south to Regina to meet with the Athletics Commission of Saskatchewan, but was again denied.
There was an opinion that “physiotherapists had no role to play in the protection of combat athletes,” he said.
But Bergen could still clearly see how physiotherapy could help. “Modern combat sports like Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) have high rates of soft tissue injury and athletes are therefore underserved in this regard,” he says.
“I also believe that MMA – with its huge increase in popularity – is a great platform to expose the public to the important role physiotherapists play in improving athlete safety, and rehabilitation,” he writes.
“But I did not expect such an uphill battle!”
As it happens, Bergen had had some previous experience with “uphill battles.”
“School did not come easy to me,” Bergen reflects. “I avoided it, started getting into trouble, and eventually dropped out of high school in my senior year.”
“It was hard to muster the courage to return, but I slowly learned how to learn, and eventually graduated with honors from Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver.”
In 2015, Bergen was admitted to the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) MPT program. Throughout his studies, he has maintained an 82% average.
Through what one reference has described as “sincere effort,” Bergen has been able to accomplish much.
And so, Bergen tried again to promote the role of physiotherapy in combat sports – this time with a different angle. “I hit the road and just showed up at combat events,” he said. “I offered my help to athletes in their preparation for their fights.”
Bergen helped with warm-ups, massage, taping and then
in with post-fight recovery, including soft tissue injury management and advocating follow-up physiotherapy.
“I’m happy to report that after about a year of effort the athletes actually started requesting me,” Bergen says.
“Since the start of 2017, I have been traveling with and supporting combat athletes at various MMA, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and kickboxing events in western provinces.”
It took effort to carve out a space for physiotherapy at these events, and Bergen made it happen by simply showing up and offering to help.
“I am now often welcomed by ringside physicians who see the value in our services helping athletes before and after the fights,” he says.
Bergen continues to help, all while traveling and supporting combat athletes in a volunteer capacity.
“I feel like this experience can be used as an example of how students can advocate for physiotherapy and actually contribute to the profession by expanding our reach into new sports,” he says.
“I think there is a lot of potential for physiotherapy in combat sports and I intend to continue developing our role.”
Celebrating a hard-earned victory, from left to right: Adam Lorenz (coach), pro MMA fighter Jacob Maier, Kurt Southern (coach) and Bergen Vermette.
Equal access healthcare
In addition to helping with athletes, Bergen also volunteers at the Student Wellness Initiative Toward Community Health Clinic (SWITCH), which provides equal access healthcare to underserved community residents living in downtown Saskatoon, SK.
“I assist physiotherapists in their clinical treatment of outpatient clients,” he says. “The majority of patients are Indigenous and we integrate Indigenous Health perspectives into our treatment plans.”
As the elected SWITCH class representative, Bergen has also successfully encouraged fellow students to help out. “It is an excellent opportunity to practice clinical skills in a unique environment and gain experience outside of regular classes and placements,” he says.
“Patients benefit from the enthusiasm of students and are able to enter the Western medical system in a way that is safe and supportive of Indigenous culture and needs. The project is well established and gives physiotherapists a constant presence in a community that might otherwise lack access to our services.”
Reconnecting and moving forward
In the fall of 2016, Bergen was selected to participate in a work placement in the Northern Saskatchewan Métis village of Île-à-la-Crosse. “As a Métis person who was unable to grow-up in a Métis community, it was a cherished opportunity for me to challenge my identity in a way I have never had the opportunity to before,” he reflects.
“It was a rich and profound experience of reconnecting with my roots and simultaneously contributing to a community with genuine healthcare needs.”
During his placement, Bergen helped organize a variety of health initiatives. “The overarching theme of our work was “healthy aging”, and we organized many mini-projects with local officials, health care providers, Elders, schools, and youth centres,” he says.
“All projects were coordinated at the request of the community and Métis perspectives, voice, and worldviews were paramount. My partner and I contributed to ongoing community health projects that included chronic disease awareness, exercise programs for retirees, back to the land groups, educational radio shows, and food security for Elders.”
“I built personally fulfilling relationships with community Elders who generously guided me and reintroduced me to my roots, culture, and heritage. These men and women helped reconnect me to who I’ve always been, and I feel deeply connected with this community,” Bergen says.
“I have to be honest and say that moving forward I don’t know where to focus all this energy. There’re so many great projects worth doing! I love MMA and combat sports so that will surely be a part of it. But I also feel passionate about Indigenous health issues – we can’t let the TRC Calls to Action just sit on the shelf, and so we have work to do. Who knows maybe I’ll find some way to marry the two. If anybody reading this has ideas and would like to partner, please get in touch.”
Please join us in congratulating Bergen Vermette!
The Indigenous Student Award
Since 2016, the Canadian Physiotherapy Association (CPA) and the Physiotherapy Foundation of Canada (PFC) have offered two $10,000 Indigenous Student Awards to “help address the significant gaps that exist between the health status of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples and that of other Canadians, as well as the unmet rehabilitation and mobility needs in rural, remote and northern communities in Canada.”
Selection is based on academic performance, merit of the application and letters of reference.
The Award is open to all Canadian Indigenous students who are First Nation (status or non-status), Inuit or Métis and who are enrolled in any year of a full-time accredited Canadian post-secondary physiotherapy program.
Please visit the Indigenous Student Award page to learn more.