Miriam Rafferty poses in front of her research station.

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Miriam Rafferty: A Passion for Helping People with Parkinson’s Live Their Best Lives

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Miriam Rafferty was a biology major at St. Mary’s College of Maryland when she tore the meniscus cartilage in her right knee playing soccer. The doctor who treated her ordered a lot of expensive and painful tests, but spent only a few minutes explaining things to her. Then she saw a physical therapist who helped her regain her strength and the confidence that she could play again. “That was my introduction to PT,” she remembers. “I had a really good experience.”

Rafferty had been considering a career in medicine or veterinary care, but after her rehab ended, she decided to become a physical therapist. During her senior year in college, Rafferty worked in a physical therapy clinic in a rural area and found herself helping a family with spinal cord injuries that resulted from an accident caused by a drunk driver. That encounter helped refine her goal further: “I became interested in neurological rehabilitation.”

These days, Rafferty, Ph.D., is a physical therapist and rehabilitation research scientist at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab working with people who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a degenerative neurological condition characterized by tremors, muscular rigidity, cognitive impairment and mood disorders such as depression, anxiety and apathy. While the disease generally moves slowly, many people are diagnosed in late middle age during the prime earning years of their lives.

One of the first questions that her patients often asked her was whether she would advise them to stop working. She didn’t know what to say, and after a quick search turned up nothing to help, Rafferty decided to study whether vocational rehabilitation counseling can help people with Parkinson’s remain employed.

“She is hard working, creative and passionate about improving patient care,” says CROR Director Allen Heinemann, Ph.D., who supervised Rafferty’s post-doctoral fellowship at Northwestern University. “She is very insightful about factors that could improve patient outcomes.”

[Miriam] is hard working, creative and passionate about improving patient care. She is very insightful about factors that could improve patient outcomes.

CROR Director Allen Heinemann, Ph.D.

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Looking back, there were signs along the way that foreshadowed Rafferty’s career path. Her mother was a chemist with a Ph.D. who worked part-time and did research while Rafferty was growing up in Annapolis, Maryland, outside Washington D.C. Rafferty didn’t know much about Parkinson’s at the time, but her grandmother had it, which affected the way she moved. An uncle was dealing with a traumatic brain injury that was the result of a workplace accident. “I had family members who moved differently,” she recalls. In middle school, she excelled at science and particularly enjoyed anatomy class. As she honed her skills as a soccer player, she became increasingly fascinated with how the human body moves and performs.

Today, Rafferty, 38, is following in her mother’s footsteps, juggling a full-time job with raising a two-year-old. Fortunately, there’s a daycare center a block from her home in the West Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago, and her husband’s work allows him to do the 5:30 p.m. child pickups when she is working late. “He’s very supportive,” Rafferty says smiling, “and she is a really laid back kid.”

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