USC Aiken students acquire valuable on-the-job training while serving the community’s heart patients

Through a partnership with Aiken Regional Medical Center, the University of South Carolina Aiken is serving patients who have experienced a heart attack, open heart surgery, angioplasty or other heart event. The program underscores the value of a USC Aiken education, providing students with hands-on opportunities to apply their classroom knowledge while enhancing their marketability for employment post-graduation.

Located in the USC Aiken Wellness Center, the outpatient Aiken Cardiac Rehabilitation Program is jointly operated by Aiken Regional and the university. The program is staffed in part by students in health majors such as Exercise and Sports Science, Psychology, and Nursing. Patients are also supported by an exercise physiologist and supervising physician employed by the hospital.

Holly Guy, Assistant Director for Campus Recreation and Wellness, serves as coordinator for the program and can attest first-hand to the value it brings to students as well as patients. Guy is a 1996 graduate of USC Aiken and interned for the program during its inception when Aiken Regional began offering cardiovascular services and USC Aiken was developing its Exercise and Sports Science program.

"Aiken Regional is able to use the university's expertise and facilities while students are able to gain experiential knowledge," she says. "It really allows them to get their feet wet and use skills they learn in class. We see the 'aha' moment when they take the textbook information and apply it."

The clinic is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., and internships are offered to juniors and seniors where schedules can be accommodated. Students make up more than half of the small 10 to 12-person staff, and with about 30 to 40 patients seen per day, they are given ample opportunity for hands-on experience.

Guy says, "Our students are very interactive with patients, checking heart rates and blood pressure and taking patients through their day-to-day exercises. Programs are individualized for each patient, so we can focus on the areas that will help each patient get back to where they want to be."

The clinic emphasizes three main areas of patient rehabilitation: recovery, monitoring and disease management. Students are tasked with monitoring patients, leading them through exercise programs and measuring vitals during activity, and educating them on the importance of exercise and diet in managing disease. Graduate students from the Psychology department conduct mental health assessments and help patients manage stress, anxiety and depression.

Exercise Science major Slater Wolford is a senior working in the program. A lifelong athlete, Slater hopes to ultimately work in the biomechanics space with professional athletes, but working in the clinic has educated him on the varying needs of different types of patients. "Cardiac rehab has opened my eyes to how the body deteriorates as we get older and how programs must be modified between athletes, younger patients and older patients," he says.

Wolford plans to attend graduate school next year and says that his experience working directly with patients is invaluable to his education. "One of the main objectives of this field is creating exercise plans and educating patients on why exercise is so beneficial to daily life," he says. "Working with actual patients is vital for exercise science, and I'm very thankful for the opportunity."