UNMC: The U.S. Varsity

Maybe it’s just an accidental headline, and nothing more. Maybe this is just the way they talk in India. Still, the words we use mean something, even when we don’t know it. And so, the way The New Indian Express, an English-language newspaper and website, summed things up recently said it all:

“US Varsity comes forward to assist state government in water management.”

It’s fair to guess that in this case they are probably using the word varsity in its original meaning as “university.” That’s fine. Doesn’t matter.

Here in the U.S., the varsity means the big boys (or girls). The No. 1 squad you’ve got. The best. The top line. The first team.

And so in this usage, it’s perfect. Because in this headline when it says “US Varsity comes forward,” it means UNMC.

Think of that phrase: U.S. Varsity comes forward. This is UNMC’s best image of itself summed up in four words.

As in: Not just the best team in the country, but the one, when help is needed, that is already on the way.

Alan Kolok, Ph.D., interim director of the Center for Environmental Health and Toxicology in UNMC's College of Public Health, displays UNMC's sentinel fish.

Alan Kolok, Ph.D., interim director of the Center for Environmental Health and Toxicology in UNMC’s College of Public Health, displays UNMC’s sentinel fish.

The story went on to say that UNMC, which is helping the Asian Institute of Public Health set up India’s first public health university, has offered its expertise in eastern India. UNMC’s College of Public Health could assist with “developing systems for effective water management for agriculture and drinking, flood and draught management as well as cropping patterns and soil toxicology.”

UNMC has developed sentinel fish-based systems – scientific sentinel fish! – which let you know right away whether your water has unwanted levels of toxin, metals and pollution.

Pinaki Panigrahi, M.D., Ph.D., director of UNMC’s Center for Global Health and Development, was quoted: “Water availability is evolving into a major threat for the future that could fuel war,” he said. “The focus across the world, thus, has shifted to proper water management. Strategies are being oriented toward addressing the problems of pollution and contamination of water and making it usable for varied purposes.”

Dr. Panigrahi

Dr. Panigrahi

Water. UNMC is going to make sure that people have water.

That’s public health. That’s health, period. That’s life. Period.

If where you live there is no clean water, and someone helps you get some, that is quite literally a breakthrough.

Dr. Maurer has long talked about becoming world-class.

Dr. Maurer has long set the goal of becoming world-class.

As much as Chancellor Harold M. Maurer, M.D., has talked about the concept of being world-class, it still can be a tough idea to grasp hold of. Many of us find ourselves falling back into seeing things in terms of UNMC’s standing here in Omaha. It’s more comfortable for us. And, here, in Omaha, we’re unquestionably awesome. Of course.

But now, maybe a headline from a newspaper on the other side of the world shows us once and for all what that means. Those words show us who we want to be.

Sure, the Indian editor who wrote it may not ascribe the same meaning to the verbiage that we do – doesn’t matter. Even without knowing it, he or she was right.

If there is a problem of ingenuity somewhere in the world, anywhere in the world, if people need help, who are you going to call on? Who will step forward?

You send in the U.S. Varsity.

That’s us.

Power Wheels to Makeshift Power Wheelchairs

The idea of modifying cars is not a new one. Just look at reality shows like “Trick My Truck.”  But the concept of adapting toy cars for children with disabilities?

Now, that’s novel.

That’s exactly what happened at the Center for Healthy Living last month. Fifty area physical therapists broke out the power tools and listened to national early mobility expert Cole Galloway, Ph.D., from the University of Delaware show them how to turn “Power Wheels” into early versions of power wheelchairs.

First, the groups ripped off the steering wheels of six toy trucks and attached big red buttons in their place. Then, they added kill switches by drilling holes into the plastic near the license plates. Next, they added padded PVC pipe frames and finally, seatbelts. Last but not least, decal stickers made the Larry the Cable Guy character car come to life.

Paula Wachholtz, a physical therapist for Papillion La-Vista School District, came away impressed. “I want to go to Toys R Us on the way home,” she said.

Paula Wachholtz, a physical therapist for Papillion La-Vista School District, came away impressed. “I want to go to Toys R Us on the way home,” she said.

The cost: $89 for each car, plus supplies. The cost for a power wheelchair: somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000-$20,000.

“Most adaptive equipment is considered medical equipment, therefore they don’t sell very many and it drives up the cost,” said Reggie Harbourne, Ph.D., associate professor of physical therapy at UNMC’s Munroe-Meyer Institute and organizer of the workshop. “This is so easy, what do we have to lose?”

Physical therapists spent about an hour transforming the toy cars. Finally, the big moment: putting kids behind the wheel for a test drive.


First up was 3-year-old Tyler Lundy, who has cerebral palsy. He was apprehensive at first. Much like a 16-year-old trying to drive a stick shift, his driving was herky-jerky at best. After a few tries, he put the red button to the floor and cruised off into the sunset (OK, it was more like the free throw line of the gym at three miles per hour, but very cute, nonetheless). Just when his parents saw their son growing up before their eyes, the car abruptly stopped. Tyler was crying. He couldn’t see his mom anymore.

“They do tend to cry the first couple times,” Dr. Harbourne said. “It’s a lot of new information. The noise, the speed, and for some it may be the first time they’ve ever caused something to go.”

But pretty soon, Tyler was back at it, showing off by using his chin to make the car go. He grinned like he was in a parade and even threw out some waves to the crowd of therapists.

Next up was Brandon. At just 11 months, he was the smallest of the children to try out the truck. Born prematurely, he is still learning to roll over. While an initial smile crossed his lips when he hit the gas, it wasn’t long before he, too, was in tears.

His face said it all: “Where’s my mom?”


The access to mobility for children who can’t move on their own is beneficial in two ways, Dr. Harbourne said. It allows them to control their environment and, simply, to socialize. Just like adults who get something new and want to show it off to their friends, kids clamor to get close to TowMater or Mater, as he’s known in the movie.

“Other kids Tyler’s age normally don’t want his toy; nobody wants a stroller. But with this, they’ll come talk to him, and he can work on his social and language skills, too,” Dr. Harbourne said.

Without mobility, kids with disabilities don’t have much of a chance to create cause and effect, which helps them understand concepts like over, under, around and through.

“If children don’t have the motor capacity to do things they cause the effect of, it can lead to delays in others area, like cognition or language. They don’t learn by watching others do things,” Dr. Harbourne said.


Parents can think of it this way. When kids knock their sippy cups off their highchairs, it’s not because they’re trying to annoy you (well, maybe a little), but rather because it helps them understand concepts like object permanence (Even if I drop this, it still comes back, again and again).

Tyler got the “cause and effect” message loud and clear. His parents were excited for him to take the car home.

“This is a great way for him to keep up with his peers,” said his mom, Jennifer. “Just like any typical boy…he loves to go fast.”tysmilesm