With compassion as a priority, Spirito wins prestigious PTA award
A Community College of Rhode Island alumna who returned several years after graduating to help launch the college’s Massage Therapy program, Toni Spirito knows what it takes to succeed in the Allied Healthcare industry.
“You can always give the student the books and they can learn how to study,” Spirito said, “but you can’t always give them that interpersonal piece of it.”
With an emphasis on teaching compassion and the art of building trust among clients, Spirito – now an adjunct professor and Rehab Lab Coordinator for CCRI’s Rehabilitative Health Programs – earned the 2023 Rhode Island American Physical Therapy Association (RIAPTA) Zelia Celona Award.
Established four years ago in honor of Celona, a 2009 CCRI graduate who attended classes with Spirito and worked at Women & Infants Hospital until she passed away from breast cancer in 2015, the award recognizes the characteristics of “a respected and loved PTA” with a focus on compassion and patient advocacy, treating patients with dignity and respect, and a commitment to advancing clinical skills while demonstrating excellence in practice.
Spirito was honored at the RIAPTA’s annual meeting in November and said she had no idea she was even nominated until they announced her name as the award winner. Several CCRI faculty members and PTA students attended, one of whom wrote a recommendation as part of the nomination process and said Spirito’s daily presence on campus provided them with a “safe place.”
“That was really nice to hear,” said Spirito, who’s been with CCRI since 2006. “I was in shock. I’m still in shock. It was a wonderful surprise.
“I always try to do the best that I can for my students and put a lot of time and effort into them, so it’s nice to get that recognition back.”
As the college’s Rehab Lab Coordinator, Spirito says she spends 25 of her 35 hours each week teaching students in CCRI’s PTA, Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA), and Therapeutic Massage programs how to deal with clients, most of which goes beyond what they learn in textbooks.
“They have to learn how to be around people and how to read people. I have always said in my 18 years that the hardest thing to teach a student – if they don’t have it – is how to be around people. That’s a lot to learn. That’s a whole process in itself.
“When a student comes to us with that struggle, it’s not easy, so a lot of time is put into that student and hopefully we can get them to do that and feel comfortable for themselves, because if they don’t feel comfortable around the patient or the client, then the patient or client isn’t going to feel comfortable.
“If they appreciate and trust you as their clinician – especially the elderly patients – just having that human contact is very important in the recovery process.”
Spirito earned her PTA certification from CCRI in 2000 and returned to the college in 2006. She credits the “amazing” faculty and staff at CCRI who taught her so much about academia that she “had no choice but to learn how to be good at it.” She later earned her bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology and master’s degree in Adult Education from the University of Rhode Island. Spirito has taught everything from Medical Terminology and Pathology at CCRI and most recently taught Kinesiology in the Fall 2023 semester.
“I always encourage my students to keep learning,” she said. “I think I’m a good example of that.”
Asked to describe the ideal PTA, Spirito said “being compassionate, loving your work, and always trying to learn are really important – and always trying to make yourself better by being involved and being a good advocate for our program.”