Dr. Valerie Rucker-Bussie, a 2018 Doctor of Physical Therapy graduate, is making a difference in the lives of people in the Washington, D.C area by providing rehabilitation through a social justice lens.

It was during her first job as a physical therapist that Valerie Rucker-Bussie decided to become a yoga instructor.

The 2018 Doctor of Physical Therapy graduate was working at the MedStar National Rehabilitation Network in the Washington, D.C. area, where she treated many patients who had lingering chronic pain. Her patient population was predominantly Black or African-American adults living in under-resourced areas of the city. To help them improve their condition, she and some of her colleagues decided to develop an integrative medicine program that offered such things yoga, Ai chi, and Pilates in addition to physical therapy, occupational therapy, and neurological psychology services.

“I only became a yoga instructor because of that experience and how well it worked,” said Rucker-Bussie. “I was passionate about it because it really lent itself to providing additional support to populations that are oftentimes overlooked.”

This newfound passion to serve the underserved was among the reasons that she opened Priority One Wellness, LLC in 2021. She is now also a certified Reiki practitioner (Japanese energy healing method) to which she adds holistic rehabilitation. In addition to also working as a staff physical therapist at Capitol Physical Therapy in Washington, D.C., Rucker-Bussie is involved with the American Physical Therapy Association, where she has served on the APTA Population Health Workgroup dedicated to improving societal health, and as a co-founder, project manager, and co-chair of the APTA District of Columbia Chapter’s Health Equity and Anti-Racism Team. For her efforts, she was recognized as an inaugural APTA Centennial Scholar and received the APTA’s Emerging Leader Award.

Most recently, she created the Priority One Wellness Restorative Justice Yoga + Arts” series at the Phillips Collection museum in Washington, D.C., for students from a local all-girls middle school where they reflect on a restorative justice topic and work on self-expression through yoga and arts.

“Yoga is comprised of a lot of different philosophies and modalities of healing, and because there is so much overlap with restorative justice and yoga principles, I thought it would be interesting to incorporate,” said Rucker-Bussie, who received the Institute’s 2023 Emerging Leader Alumni Award earlier this year for these and other efforts. “We are taking principles of trust and providing topics as starting points for discussions with the girls. It’s been great to see them learn through this series.”

Two women smiling on stage in graduation robes
Valerie Rucker-Bussie (right) received the Institute’s 2023 Emerging Leader Alumni Award from President Paula Milone-Nuzzo at May's Commencement ceremony.

Her attention to making society better is nothing new. At Vanderbilt University,      she was a co-site leader of restoring hurricane-damaged homes in New Orleans during winter break and was the President of a community service student organization called Are You Making a Difference (Are You M.A.D.).

As an IHP student, she co-founded the Acts of Service student group, and was named an Albert Schweitzer Fellow where she addressed the fitness and health literacy needs of underserved children through a weekly dance class at the Charlestown Boys and Girls Club.

Upon graduation, she received the Barbara Adams Fellow Award, given to a DPT student who demonstrates leadership abilities, service to the profession, and the potential to make a significant contribution as a clinical scholar.

Rucker-Bussie has maintained a strong connection with the Institute since graduation. For the past two years, she has led a class for second-year students titled “Understanding and Dismantling Pathways of Health Disparities.”

“Social justice and health equity have been difficult and challenging principles to integrate into DPT education,” wrote Dr. Keshrie Naidoo, the PT Department’s Interim Chair, in a letter supporting Rucker-Bussie’s IHP alumni award. “Seeing what Valerie has accomplished working toward anti-racism and health equity in such a short period has been incredibly inspiring for students who can quickly become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the undertaking.”

In addition, Rucker-Bussie has been guest faculty in the department’s Social Justice and Health Equity cross-curricular thread, as a panelist for its inaugural Black History Month Panel where she highlighted her lived experience as a BIPOC physical therapist. She was also a speaker this past September at the department’s inaugural conference, “Connecting Physical Therapy Practice, Social Justice, and Health Equity.”

“Val is a dedicated, passionate clinician, scholar, educator, and leader devoted to improving health care delivery and wellness, and reducing health disparities while addressing individual      needs in a diverse society,” wrote School of Health and Rehabilitation Science Dean Dr. Laura Plummer (who taught Rucker-Bussie) and Assistant Professor Dr. Jane Baldwin in their support letter. “We are proud to have her as one of our alumni.”

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