Purdue Health Sciences alumnus excels in physical therapy practice and teaching

Matthew Smith headshot

Matthew Smith

Written by: Tim Brouk, tbrouk@purdue.edu

Perhaps not for a billboard, Dr. Matthew Smith’s slogan for his physical therapy practice in the Chicago area is still impactful.

“I tell all of my patients at some point ‘I have a very cool job in that I meet nice people who I never, ever want to see again,’” said Smith, a 2011 Purdue University School of Health Sciences alumnus, with a laugh. “‘If we see each other on the street, great, but I hope that I’ve given you the tools to make yourself feel better and continue this train rolling when you’re done seeing me.’”

Smith, who will return to West Lafayette to receive an Early Career Achievement Award from the Purdue College of Health and Human Sciences on March 31, maintains a practice in Downers Grove, Illinois, while teaching physical therapy students as an assistant professor at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.

Whether it’s a student or patient, Smith wants people to take home what they learn and practice during physical therapy. The continuous exercises are crucial in preventing more injuries and more sessions at Smith’s clinic. He likens it to how you brush your teeth twice daily to avoid having to go to the dentist more than your twice-yearly cleanings.

From his past experiences storming Mackey Arena and Ross-Ade stadium after resounding Boilermaker victories to finding his career path, Smith will be glad to see West Lafayette again.

Smith credits his early days at Purdue for not only stoking his interest in physical therapy but also supplying him the confidence to work one-on-one with clients and teach future physical therapists.

What kind of ailments are you treating most in your physical therapy practice these days?

I treat pretty much everything orthopedic — any shoulder, knee, lower back pain are probably the most common. Something I see a little different from other PTs (physical therapists), I see patients with some face and jaw pain as well. That’s more of a niche-type treatment that we see different amounts of.

Why did you want to start teaching physical therapy?

The interest in teaching started when I worked at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. I was doing some assisting and teaching at Northwestern University, where I went to grad school, and it really piqued my interest. In addition to helping patients, you’re assisting students in learning instead of assisting in their shoulder hurting. It was a change of mindset a little bit. To be honest, I also liked the application of patients I was seeing and being able to talk to students about “Hey, I saw this literally this afternoon, and here’s how we treated it.” I think students are really receptive when you’re treating patients and bringing that into the classroom.

Both places I work are in close vicinity of each other. So, if a student was having trouble or just super interested in a certain diagnosis, I can have them come to my clinic while I’m treating a patient and they can see that you actually know what you’re talking about. You can show them a real-world example with a real person versus something on paper.

What can people do to ensure they don’t have to return to physical therapy?

It’s setting each person up with their own independent program to continue afterward. Please do these exercises once you’re done here every day or a few times a week, so you won’t have to come back and see me, which is, I think, a unique thing about physical therapy. It’s giving people the tools to manage their own symptoms. I want that person to get better on their own time.

What kind of patients are you seeing?

We see all comers. It’s pretty much adults ages 18 to my oldest patient ever was 104. So, we see everyone from the whole spectrum of adulthood. 

How has your Purdue degree help you during your career so far?

Aside from the notoriety that an institution like Purdue University brings, I believe the academic requirements and rigor set me up for a postgraduate life. The habits and work ethic that I learned at Purdue have carried over into all of my other professional and academic endeavors. In addition, going to a Big Ten institution affords endless opportunities. If there is something you are interested in doing outside of the classroom, the network and alumni base through Purdue and the Big Ten as a whole is typically very happy to help facilitate.

What advice would you give an incoming Purdue student?

Enjoy it! Purdue is a very special place with a lot to offer. I met my group of friends in the first week of Boiler Gold Rush and still talk to them every day 16 years later. Enjoy your time while you’re a student because the undergraduate experience is something very special. There are so many things that are uniquely a Purdue experience, so soak them all in and make those memories.