From Cohort to Cohabitation: Mike Bacasa, MPT ’96 and Holly Putnam Bacasa, MPT ’96

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Holly Putnam was working at Cappy’s Café on Walnut Street when a friend walked in one morning, accompanied by a man she didn’t know. “This is Mike Bacasa,” said the friend of the man she would one day end up marrying and having four children with. “You’re both starting the physical therapy program at Chatham.” It was 1994, and Chatham was dipping its toes into graduate education, launching master’s programs in both physical therapy and occupational therapy.

Today, programs in Chatham’s School of Health Sciences are highly competitive, with an overall acceptance rate of approximately 23 percent. But back then, students faced a risk of a different kind: the PT program had yet to become accredited. “That was nerve-wracking for many of us,” says Holly. “But we were all so excited to be there. I think the students and the teachers knew we were all in it together. It bonded us in a different way than what other classes might experience. We all worked really hard to reinforce the idea that the program was successful. It was actually a really fun part of being part of that first year.”

Holly had just finished undergrad at Pitt, and she remembers the first time she understood the difference between a large undergraduate program and a small, private school. “I had avoided organic chemistry all throughout undergrad,” she says. “But I needed to take it at Chatham, as a prerequisite. I realized right then—wow, I can get an A in organic chem! I couldn’t believe all the individual attention I was getting. I realized right away what a good environment the smaller, intimate setting was for learning.”

Holly and Mike, not yet romantically attached, did their thesis together, along with two other students. “It was a case study of a patient who had had a stroke,” says Mike. It was his great-aunt, in fact. “We worked with her three times per week for eight weeks, traveling back and forth to Brookline. Holly and I got to see what it was like to work together. She was always the principal investigator, though, so she was always in charge. That’s still the way it is today!” he laughs.

“I always felt like we were so well supported,” says Mike. “The professors really coached us along. They were always there to say ‘You can do this; we’re here to get you wherever you need to be.’”

“I remember a lot of hands-on lab work in the basement of the Chapel,” he continues. “We had lectures in Coolidge Hall, some in Buhl. Being on campus was great. The group of 40 or so of us in our cohort, we just did everything together,” he says, adding that Holly was always the social chair.

Holly characterizes the way that they were taught to look at patients “without tunnel vision” as nothing less than profound. “A lot of our clinical instructors noticed it,” she says. “I think Chatham students really stuck out more than other students, because of our problem-solving strategies.” Mike agrees: “Once we went out to the clinics, our brains already had those problem-solving pathways in place,” he says. “We were one of the first schools to provide problem-based learning, and thinking in terms of problem-solving was second nature to us. It still is, in every aspect of my life, not just rehab.”

Holly characterizes the way that they were taught to look at patients “without tunnel vision” as nothing less than profound. “A lot of our clinical instructors noticed it,” she says. “I think Chatham students really stuck out more than other students, because of our problem-solving strategies.” Mike agrees: “Once we went out to the clinics, our brains already had those problem-solving pathways in place,” he says. “We were one of the first schools to provide problem-based learning, and thinking in terms of problem-solving was second nature to us. It still is, in every aspect of my life, not just rehab.”

“Being among the first grad students—that was interesting,” says Mike. “I remember when we first came to campus, some of the undergraduates weren’t so excited about having men on campus. We’d see messages written in chalk on the sidewalk—let’s keep Chatham all women, things like that.” “I can’t say enough about the relations we still have with our professors, like Pat Downey and Sue Perry,” says Mike. “That says so much about the program, that they’ve been able to hang on to the original professors. There was a time when (Professor of Physical Therapy) Sue Perry and I were both working at the Rehab Institute. That was unreal, working side-by-side with her, after she had taught us so many things.” After graduation, Holly started working at the Rehabilitation Institute of Pittsburgh. She encouraged Mike to apply, and he did. He got in. About a year later, they started dating, and today, they have four kids.

“I always say that Mike was the first ever male to graduate from Chatham, because students graduate alphabetically,” says Holly. “That’s why we say we have the first Chatham baby—our son Michael. We gave Esther (Barazzone, Chatham’s 18th president) a photo of him as a baby wearing a Chatham sweatshirt. Now that baby’s going to be 13.”

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In 2001, Mike started his sole proprietorship, Wellness for Life, working privately with clients in their homes who had had a stroke or other type of brain injury. In 2006, they opened a space at the corner of Forbes and Shady avenues in Squirrel Hill, and began seeing a mix of clients. “I’ve been working with three of my current private clients for 15 years,” he says. “It’s an unbelievable experience to get to work with someone for that long. I learn a lot; they learn a lot. It becomes a different kind of therapy when it’s ongoing.”

Wellness for Life prides itself on providing one-on-one care throughout the spectrum of life, and since 2006, Holly has been working on the other end, doing early interventions for children aged 0-3 throughout Allegheny County. “It’s a big privilege,” she says. “I go into homes and meet families and their baby or child who has been identified as developmentally delayed. I can teach them things while I’m there, and I evaluate them to see if they qualify for services paid for by the state. I can recommend therapies outside of PT too, like speech or OT. I love it and can’t see myself doing anything else.”

Both Holly and Mike have stayed involved with Chatham over the years. Mike served as a graduate alumni representative for three years to the Board of Trustees, and was also involved with the Alumni Association Board. He has talked with graduating students about his experiences as a business owner, facilitated students doing assessments of real neurological cases, and taken continuing education courses through Chatham. Holly worked with a behavioral therapist to introduce a behavioral component to the pediatric course in Chatham’s PT program, developing scenarios with additional complications for the students to strategize their way through.

“Without that degree from Chatham, I just know that I couldn’t do what I love to do,” says Mike.