TTU nutrition students gain real-world knowledge at CRMC's cardiac and pulmonary rehab

Students in Cathy Hix-Cunningham’s nutrition and disease applications course at Tennessee Tech University had the opportunity this semester to put faces with medical conditions.

That’s because they participated in a project that allowed them to work one-on-one with patients of Cookeville Regional Medical Center’s cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation unit.

Although the students had been making detailed food recommendations and creating comprehensive nutrition plans since early in the course, that work was based simply on case studies of various diseases, ranging from AIDS and cancer to diabetes and heart disease.

“I was nervous when I first started working with my client because this is a real person and not just a case study,” said Felicia Shoulta, a senior dietetics major from Dickson. “But it was a good experience because, as professional dietitians, we’ll have to look at our clients as whole people and not just diseases or conditions.”

That was a valuable lesson for students to gain from the project, said Hix-Cunningham, because real world scenarios often aren’t limited to just one condition or another.

“Case studies are generally limited to a specific disease or disorder, but working with an actual client often means having to consider multiple maladies and their associated medications and how all those and other factors contribute to the nutrition options that are best for that particular person,” she explained.

The client Shoulta worked with was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, or COPD.

“As the project progressed, I became much more comfortable because I realized this is exactly the kind of work we’ll be doing in our professions,” Shoulta said.

“Gaining weight was the primary objective. To get more calorie intake, I recommended that the client eat more fruits and vegetables and stay hydrated by increasing fluid intake,” she continued.

“During our last communication, my client reported a weight gain, so I felt like some of my recommendations had been successfully incorporated,” Shoulta said. “It made me feel good to think I had made a positive influence on this person’s nutrition and overall health.”

Gaining that kind of real-world experience is a significant advantage of service learning, said Hix-Cunningham, but that’s not its only benefit.

“It really helps to individualize student learning, and students of all ages learn best when they can work directly with a problem or a scenario on an individual basis,” she said.

That goes for the clients these students worked with too, Hix-Cunningham continued.

“This project turned the students into teachers,” she said. “Under my supervision, they taught clients about better nutrition, and the clients who incorporated some of those recommendations learned ways to directly improve their health through better nutrition.”

One client said, “I know I should have a healthy diet, but I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. If it hadn’t been for this project, I would still be struggling, trying to figure out what it means to eat healthy.”

A borderline diabetic woman who is in her mid-50s and recovering from a five-bypass open-heart surgery said she had been accustomed to eating whatever she wanted, in any quantity she wanted.

Realizing as she recovered from surgery that her diet needed to change significantly, however, she responded in the opposite extreme, too severely restricting her fat and calorie intake.

Working with one of Hix-Cunningham’s dietetics students, she said, taught her that portion control is important and that she can incorporate healthier versions of many foods into her diet.

“The hardest thing was giving up fried food, and I’m having to get used to reading labels and measuring my food,” she said. “But I’m learning to make healthier choices, like putting chopped celery in my tuna fish salad to get in an extra serving of vegetable or using ground turkey to make hamburgers with lower fat and fewer calories.

“I’m willing to listen to anyone willing to sit down with me like this student did and explain in a way I can understand how to eat healthier. It’s worth changing my diet if I can keep from ever having to go through another surgery like that,” she said.

Already, she said, she’s achieved a major accomplishment — not gaining any weight over the Thanksgiving holiday.


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