Amy Ollila and her student physical therapist, Marjeanne Bothma, stand face to face, each holding a pair of plastic percussion tubes called Boomwhackers.

Bothma taps an app on her phone and the opening bars of Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” play through a portable speaker.

As the two feel the beat, Bothma calls out their moves: “All right, double on double, here we go. … Good, march it out. … Hit, hit, step, step. … OK, reach—up high!”

Ollila hammers her sticks to the beat—first against Bothma’s sticks, then against a yoga ball serving as a drum.

As the music drives forward—“So just dance, dance, dance”—Bothma calls out changes in their footwork and drumming patterns. Standing between the parallel bars in the rehab gym, Ollila knows she’s safe. There’s something to lean against if she loses her balance.

When the song ends, the two cheer, catch their breath and start a new tune.

‘Back to life’

This type of physical therapy took Ollila by surprise when Bothma introduced her to it. You might even say it rocked her world.

“Oh, it brought me back to life. I actually felt like I was dead for so many years with this disease,” said Ollila, 49, who received a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis in 2012 but has had symptoms for much longer.

“This, like, really woke me back up, and I feel like a totally different person. I can do so much more now than I was able to before.”

That’s a bit of an understatement.

Ollila arrived at the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital at a low point in her Parkinson’s journey. After 10 years of using a walker to get around the house, she found herself losing her balance and falling with increasing regularity.

Fear of falling made her overly cautious.

“My confidence level was really low,” Ollila said. “I was really depressed—sad all the time, didn’t want to have any social life, didn’t want to do anything with my grandchildren or my children.”

As time wore on, Ollila spent more and more time in bed, getting up only to use the bathroom or find something to eat.

One November day, she fell five times. After the fifth fall, she couldn’t get herself up.

A friend came and helped her into bed, but when Ollila felt her legs go numb the next morning, she called 911 and landed in the ER at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.

From there she was transferred to the Inpatient Rehab Center.

“(Even with rehab) they told me I would be going home in a wheelchair,” Ollila said.

She bristled at the idea.

“My mindset was, ‘No, I’m not going to.’” She resolved to fight back, work hard and get comfortable using a walker again.

Then she met Bothma, a student intern from Central Michigan University assigned to her case.

The two clicked. Both knew what they were there to do, and they set themselves to the task, using physical therapy to begin rebuilding Ollila’s strength and flexibility.

They talked a lot. Quickly, Bothma sensed Ollila would be a great fit for drumming therapy.

“I figured, ‘Well, Amy’s great for this.’ She had such a fun spirit and she’s up for anything,” Bothma said.

The next day, they went to the rehab gym. Bothma gave Ollila a pair of sticks and showed her the dance moves, which work on strength, endurance, stretching, balance and big movements.

“(When you have Parkinson’s disease) you become so rigid and tight and all your movements are small,” Bothma said. “So this drumming was working on getting her to open up and move around.”

The experiment far exceeded Bothma’s expectations.

“I knew it was fun and I loved it, but, you know, it has to be a two-way street. It can’t just be the therapist saying, ‘Oh, this is great,’” Bothma said.

Ollila loved it. It brought her back to her days of piano lessons and competitive sports.

Bothma worked music, drumming and dancing into each therapy session. It provided an escape from the disease by disguising therapy as entertainment.

“For a second, you’re not focusing on what you can’t do,” Bothma said.

Unexpected progress

After two weeks as an inpatient, embracing both occupational and physical therapy, Ollila abandoned her walker and began walking without assistance. Her gait improved. Her balance scores went up.

“By the end of (her time here), she was running up the stairs, I kid you not. I’m like, ‘Slow down, Amy!’” Bothma said. “She was just so confident.”

The confidence boost has motivated Ollila to keep working out at home—every day. Now she’s driving again and taking care of her three grandchildren.

“Before, I wouldn’t go and do anything. And now I feel like I can do anything and everything,” she said. “This just changed my direction.”

Ollila is no stranger to physical therapy, but this is the first time it’s touched her heart, she said.

The difference? The fun factor.

“I haven’t laughed so hard in such a long time,” she said. “I had so much fun I kind of didn’t want to leave. It didn’t feel like therapy.”

Ollila’s transformation was a special achievement for Bothma, who will earn her doctor of physical therapy degree this spring.

It’s also a great example of a student serving as teacher, sharing new therapeutic methods learned at school.

“These are techniques that I as an instructor was not really familiar with, so I was able to observe and learn,” said her Spectrum Health supervisor, Linda Rusiecki, DPT.

A demonstration

A few weeks after her discharge, Ollila returned to demonstrate the drumming techniques at an in-service training for Bothma’s physical and occupational therapy colleagues.

Watching the presentation that day, Ollila’s friend Alice Oosting said she never dreamed Amy would make this kind of headway.

“Never. I always thought the best she could do would be with a walker,” said Oosting, who has seen Ollila at her worst.

“The music element is really I think what just brought her back,” she said, noting the dramatic change in her friend’s outlook.

“It’s such an amazing thing for me to watch.”