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Into the Deep End

HydroWorx inventor Paul Hetrick, D.C. (Main, `77)Paul Hetrick’s family couldn’t afford a membership to the Hummelstown Swim Club. But one quiet morning in May 1967, a few days before the pool opened for the season, the 13-year-old found himself being wheeled through the club’s empty pavilion by a family friend, Mr. Goepfert, who managed the facility.

Earlier that week, the young Dr. Hetrick had hit his head on a porcelain water fountain while playing medicine ball in gym class. He came home from the emergency room with burr holes in his skull and legs that refused to move.

At the water’s edge, Mr. Goepfert tipped the wheelchair forward and heaved Dr. Hetrick into the deep end. As he sank through the water, the boy gazed up at the blurry image of Mr. Goepfert waving his arms frantically.

Fifty-six years later, Dr. Hetrick can laugh about it. “No one had thought to tell him I couldn’t swim.”

Mr. Goepfert remained undeterred. Not long before, Dr. Hetrick’s father, who ran the local volunteer ambulance company, had helped Mr. Goepfert’s son during an injury, and he was determined to pay it forward. He dove in and ferried Dr. Hetrick to safety, concluding a most unconventional rehabilitation session — the first of many to come. “By the end of the summer, I had my legs underneath me,” says Dr. Hetrick. “I was able to walk again.”

Looking back, that morning stands out as a signal moment, one crucial steppingstone along the path that would lead Dr. Hetrick to study the science, art and philosophy of chiropractic at Palmer College of Chiropractic and, eventually, to invent the HydroWorx aquatic therapy pool used by more than 30,000 athletes and patients every day.

Now, Dr. Hetrick is following Mr. Goepfert’s example and paying it forward with a $1 million endowed gift to Daring and Driven, the largest fundraising campaign ever undertaken by a chiropractic college. Made in support of Palmer’s postgraduate Sports and Rehabilitation Residency program, the gift represents a catalytic investment in the next generations of chiropractors specializing in the field Dr. Hetrick has done so much to revolutionize.

It also moves Palmer one step closer to reaching its goal of raising $25 million by September. To date, $21.4 million has been raised.

“Dr. Hetrick is a Palmer alumnus who has truly dedicated his career to creating a world of unlimited health and human potential,” says Barbara Melbourne, J.D., vice chancellor for institutional advancement. “His unwavering passion and ambitious vision are an inspiration, and his gift to this historic campaign will make a meaningful impact on future residents, the College itself and countless patients.”

“You get back what you give away 10 times over throughout your life,” says Dr. Hetrick. “If I can do something to help today’s students become successful, then I’m all for it.”

It was Paul Fitterer, D.C. (Main, `58), who put the young Dr. Hetrick on a plane to Davenport, Iowa.

“He was a gracious man and a very successful doctor,” Dr. Hetrick says of Dr. Fitterer, who practiced in Dr. Hetrick’s central Pennsylvania hometown. “When I told him I was looking at chiropractic colleges, he simply said, ‘You’re only going to look at Palmer. This is the best college.’ He even paid for my flight and hotel room.”

At Palmer, Dr. Hetrick honed the knowledge and skills that would serve him throughout his career.

Working 60 hours a week on top of his studies — pulling overnighters as an EMT and waiting tables — provided him an equally valuable education in persistence and hard work.

When he graduated in 1977, however, it didn’t take long for Dr. Hetrick to understand that he wasn’t done learning. Though he embarked on his career with a specific focus on the upper cervical, he soon began to see patients with a wide range of athletic injuries, from the shoulders down to the knees. With his curiosity piqued, he developed an insatiable appetite for continuing education courses, studying with a series of experts across disciplines, including LeRoy Perry, D.C., the first chiropractor to serve as an unofficial Olympic team doctor.

Those learning experiences were just the start. Over the next decade, as Dr. Hetrick built up his own clinic on the banks of the Susquehanna, he found himself dogged by “what if” questions. What if he could get patients upright and moving sooner? What if he could harness the buoyancy and hydrostatic effects of water he experienced as a child to create a physiological, functional support and stabilization system? Eventually, he would be pondering the possibilities of lowering patients to variable depths to challenge multiple neurological mechanisms, getting their feet on the floor to allow for closed-chain kinetics and adding underwater cameras for gait analysis. What if he could recreate every functional movement pattern done on land in the limited space of the pool?

The pursuit of answers to questions like these led Dr. Hetrick, one afternoon in 1987, to the Penn National Race Course, where a man he’d read about was installing an underwater treadmill for horses. Dr. Hetrick remembers showing up in a sharp suit and a new pair of shoes only to be handed a shovel and told that if he wanted to talk, it would have to be down inside a pit that needed clearing out of you-know-what. That inauspicious meeting led to a $50,000 handshake deal Dr. Hetrick couldn’t afford, and he would spend every weekend for the next two years driving to New Jersey to pitch in building the very first underwater treadmills for humans that would outfit his growing rehabilitation clinic.

“I can’t tell you how many times the stupid thing failed,” laughs Dr. Hetrick, fondly remembering the time he received an impromptu lesson in electrical grounding and all the good-natured patients he’d accidentally slick with hydraulic oil. “The amazing thing was that they never stopped believing in me.”

Spurred by that belief and the critical contributions of people like Scott Stoner, D.C. (Main, `88), and attorney Anson Flake, two of his initial business partners, Dr. Hetrick continued persevering. In May 1997, HydroWorx officially launched. Growing a loyal customer list of pro sports teams, large universities and major health care centers would take years more of sweat and toil, but for the first time, perhaps, success seemed all but inevitable.

More than a quarter century later, Dr. Hetrick is still asking, “What if?”

Dr. Marchiori and Dr. Hetrick talking in the rehab room.Around the time he and his team were refining their prototype, Palmer College was launching its Sports and Rehabilitation Residency, an intensive three-year program where Doctors of Chiropractic continue to build their clinical skills and earn specialized credentials while teaching parts of the Palmer curriculum.

“We have a recipe that’s worked well,” says Palmer College Provost Dan Weinert, D.C., Ph.D. (Main, `96), who was the second resident to complete the program. “And when you know something works well, you reinvest.”

Fueled by Dr. Hetrick’s game-changing gift, Dr. Weinert describes a vision for the future of the program that goes well beyond the status quo. At the heart of that vision is a dual mission to develop content experts in the field and equip the next generation of chiropractic educators. As part of the program, residents work toward earning board-certified status as a Diplomate of the American Chiropractic Rehabilitation Board, a credential that sets them apart as leaders in the discipline. Moving forward, the Palmer program will also afford residents greater opportunities to deepen their knowledge within their individual interests. That might mean traveling to train at elite institutions, exploring diverse interdisciplinary care settings or learning from other rehabilitation experts.

It’s easy to draw parallels between this approach and Dr. Hetrick’s journey. “Whenever he heard about something, he went after it,” says Dr. Weinert. “His gift allows us to formalize that for our residents, empowering them to go out and learn from amazing mentors. Dr. Hetrick has an incredible story of success, and now we can give other people the chance to follow a like path.”

“I didn’t do it alone,” adds Dr. Hetrick, stressing the value of exposure to multidisciplinary settings and a willingness to listen to other people’s ideas. “I was always surrounded by a team.”

By the time they finish the program, residents will be uniquely equipped to share their own deep knowledge with others. “Now, we’ll be able to more intentionally build a pipeline of future educators who have the tools to spread their expertise to the generation that comes after them,” says Dr. Weinert.

Thanks to Dr. Hetrick’s support, these exciting opportunities will soon be available at Palmer’s Florida campus, too. “Florida has long been receptive to having a resident, but now we can say we have the funding we need,” says Dr. Weinert. “It’s a no-brainer, strategically, to expand this program across the whole College.”

Where the program will grow from there is a matter of asking more “what ifs.” “We’re at the start of something big, and this gift will allow the seed to grow,” says Dr. Weinert. “If we’re purposeful in the design of this, we can exponentially increase the return on investment.”

Melbourne believes Dr. Hetrick’s gift to Daring and Driven will inspire his fellow alumni to reflect on their own journeys and the people and places that have made a difference along the way. “Dr. Hetrick is making that same kind of difference for all those who will be a part of this program in the future,” she says. “We’re grateful to him and every other Palmer graduate whose generosity is helping pave the way for the next generation of the world’s best chiropractors.”

That morning at the Hummelstown Swim Club, when a boy who grew up in a family of four children with limited means received a kindness that would echo for decades to come, is never far from Dr. Hetrick’s mind even today.

“I’ve been blessed far beyond what I ever could have expected,” he says. “But we’re just temporary custodians of our wealth. It’s a matter of what you want to do with it. And I’ve always had the belief that if you help others, you will be rewarded.”

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All In

As the current rehabilitation program resident, Tom Klopcic, D.C., spends his days seeing patients in the Palmer clinic, teaching classes and training interns, and pursuing his own coursework in topics like selective functional movement assessment and mechanical diagnosis and therapy.

“I love what functional rehabilitation stands for in the sphere of the patient,” he says. “It helps give them back their autonomy — their lives — so they can feel in control of their health. This is the best program for that, and Dr. Hetrick’s gift is going to be used so well. We’re all in.”