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How virtual physical therapy is helping patients during COVID-19

Four-year-old Freya lives three hours away from the Twin Cities but thanks to virtual care, she does physical therapy every week through Children's Minnesota.

MINNEAPOLIS — From her home in Hancock, Minnesota, four-year-old Freya is learning to walk with the help of a physical therapist at Children's Minnesota.

The family lives nearly three hours away from the Twin Cities but Freya is still able to receive weekly physical therapy sessions thanks to virtual care. 

"Since doing telehealth, she's made so much progress... I'm still in awe about how good she's doing right now," said Jessica Bossuot, Freya's mother. 

More than two years ago, the family found out that Freya had an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor (ATRT) — a rare, fast-growing brain tumor. 

"She had a tumor the size of a lemon in her head and they couldn't take the whole tumor out because it was wrapped around an artery," Bossuot explained. 

Bossuot said an MRI done two weeks ago showed everything is stable with no new growths. Part of Freya's care includes physical therapy. 

Credit: Jessica Bossuot
More than two years ago, the family found out that Freya had an atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor (ATRT) — a rare, fast-growing brain tumor.

"There's only two places for us to get physical therapy for her within a 30 minute area and neither one of them are super great for her," Bossuot said. 

But shortly after the pandemic started, Freya began virtual care at Children's Minnesota. 

Amid COVID-19, telehealth has become a more popular option for patients. But how has it translated to care that is more hands-on, like physical therapy? 

"I'm used to seeing them in person and maybe doing a certain exercise or feeling their leg to see if their muscle is activating. I can't do that over the computer. So we had to train our therapists and think about it together about what kind of movements can we watch, can we time, can we measure over the computer," said Lynn Tanner, a physical therapist and rehabilitation clinical specialist in oncology at Children's Minnesota. 

When the pandemic arrived in March, physical therapy clinics had to scale back services for two weeks. During that time, Tanner and a team researched and developed standards of care for seeing patients virtually. They trained nearly 200 clinicians. 

"When the pandemic first started we were doing many more virtual sessions. As we're very confident in being able to provide safe services at the clinic, we've definitely returned to more clinic visits. However, there are families that let's say they have three kids at home and they have two kids at home distance learning. So how are they supposed to take their other child for a visit at the clinic? It's much more conducive for them to have physical therapy at home," Tanner explained. 

Bossuot said it was hard for her to be in the room with Freya during her physical therapy sessions because her son would travel with them to the Twin Cities and need attention, as well. 

Now with telehealth, Bossuot said, "I get to be more hands on with it and I get to see those little milestones that she hits each time, right when she hits them."

Credit: Jessica Bossuot
Freya is now standing up and walking on her own.

Virtual care does not mean patients no longer need in-person visits. Every patient's situation is different. 

"We will do a mix of visits; I think that's my preference. There's just some things for sure that you can't do over the computer and my hands can feel it better," Tanner said. 

While the future of telehealth is uncertain, Tanner is hopeful those services have a place in our future. 

"I think there are some kids out there right now that are getting rehab services because they can do it virtually that wouldn't be doing it at all if it wasn't available," Tanner said. 

Freya fits into that category. Prior to the virtual physical therapy sessions, Freya would scoot everywhere. Now she's standing up and walking on her own. 

Bossuot said, "The fact that she's trying to do this and she's taking the initiative to do it on her own is amazing." 

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