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Runs in the Family: Creighton PT alumna, grandmother share call to service

Harriet Schmitt in her white U.S. Army dress uniform in 1945.Michelle Eastwood’s grandmother, Harriet Eastwood, died a few years before Michelle was born, so she had no personal way of knowing how much Harriet’s life story could impact her own.

But when the Carlsbad, California, native started applying to physical therapy programs after her undergraduate graduation from Gonzaga University in 2013, her father told her a story about his mother.

“He said, ‘You know, your grandmother was a physical therapist,’” Michelle Eastwood, DPT’16 recalled. “And from there, he told me all about how she had lived this truly amazing life. It was a story that I just became so proud of. In all of the interviews I had for physical therapy school, I was asked in every one of them, ‘Why do you want to be a PT?’ And that story helped contribute to my answer.”

That story begins in a small Iowa town in the depths of the Great Depression. Harriet Eastwood, then Harriet Schmitt, was working as a high school physical education teacher.

In more ways than one, Harriet was a rarity in her era. She was a female college graduate, attaining a degree from the University of Iowa in 1930, and she was also jettisoning other female expectations of the day by remaining unmarried and holding down a job in a relatively authoritarian, male-dominated field.

One day, in 1936, Harriet broke with convention entirely and, saying good-bye to her family, moved across the country to Washington, D.C. She’d seen an advertisement for a course in what was then called physiotherapy being offered at Walter Reed General Hospital, the U.S. Army’s medical headquarters.

“I don’t know why she did it,” Steve Eastwood, Michelle’s father and Harriet’s son, said. “And I never really thought to ask her. But something in her decided that she needed to pick up and move to Washington, so she did it. I know it was always a source of pride for her. She didn’t want to do what her high school classmates had done — get married and settle down right away. She wanted her life to be a little different. She wanted to find a little of herself first and she did.”

Within a year, Harriet had finished her course at Walter Reed and began teaching and practicing at the hospital, delivering courses on hydrotherapy and anatomy. She also became adept with different machines and therapeutic approaches like diathermy, the use of a whirlpool and infrared and ultraviolet therapies.

“We still use a lot of the modalities she mentions on her résumé,” Michelle said. “She talks about therapeutic exercise and referrals from staff doctors, things we still obviously do today, but it’s in this language that I’m very familiar with as a PT.”

By 1938, Harriet was sent to a posting at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where she took charge of the physical therapy clinic at the Army’s hospital there. She held the job for a year and a half before taking a civilian post in Minnesota, but as wars in Europe and Asia heated up, she was pressed back into military service as a civilian at an Army-Navy rehabilitation hospital in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Just months before Pearl Harbor, Harriet was commissioned an Army officer and sent to head up the physical therapy clinic in the hospital at Fort Riley, Kansas. For three years, she supported the war effort on the homefront.

Harriet Schmitt, second from left, at the conclusion of World War II.Then — as it did for many Army medical staff — the world changed on June 6, 1944. As the Allied liberation of Europe began, a steady trail of casualties stretched behind the invasion force.

Harriet was named a chief physical therapist. She began her new assignment at sites in England and Scotland, but as the Allies pushed deeper into Europe, it became necessary for rehabilitation personnel to more quickly treat the recovering wounded. She moved from England to France, from France to Germany, and from Germany to Austria. There are photographs of her at Hitler’s mountaintop retreat at Berchtesgaden and beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

All the while, Harriet practiced her profession. And she fell in love.

Lester Eastwood was a combat engineer who had been wounded in action and Harriet Schmitt had been his PT. Theirs was a forbidden liaison, for Lester Eastwood was an enlisted man.

“And as an officer, she was not allowed to date a sergeant,” Michelle said. But Lester and Harriet still exchanged letters and Harriet also corresponded with her family back home, too. These letters formed the basis of an expansive family history compiled by Michelle’s uncle and it was through these letters that Michelle started to gain a clearer picture of her grandmother and find the similarities in their stories.

Michelle Eastwood at her Creighton graduation in 2016.“It’s funny, the parallels,” Michelle said. “She married a civil engineer and I’m going to be marrying a civil engineer. She got up one day and decided to explore what more America had to offer and I did something similar. I kind of decided to drop everything and move halfway across the country to work on my career, just like she did. Creighton was a great school and I wanted to see the country and, since she was from Iowa, I lived in Council Bluffs while I went to Creighton.”

During her Creighton interview, when Eastwood reached the point where she was asked about her motivations to become a physical therapist, she started on the story of her grandmother, but the interviewer stopped her after just a few moments.

“The interviewer said, ‘Your grandmother was a PT?’ and that’s when they called in Dr. Peck,” Eastwood said. “From there, things just kind of went the way you might expect them to go with a history buff like Dr. Peck.”

Kirk Peck, Ph.D., is the chair of the Department of Physical Therapy and has a broadening collection of memorabilia from the early days of his profession’s existence. Moreover, Peck says he just likes to talk history and think about its shaping influence on the present and future.

Michelle eventually came to Creighton and one day, she brought copies of her grandmother’s letters to Peck. Harriet Eastwood’s story, he said, captivated him right away.

“She seemed to have been everywhere in the European Theater,” Peck said. “And it’s kind of this love story. Here she is, an officer and a PT, and she meets up with a combat engineer who has been wounded and it all unfolds right here in about 70 pieces of correspondence. It was neat to read. I know that Michelle was moved and motivated by her grandmother’s story and she feels such an honor to be a PT, like her grandmother.”

Harriet Schmitt, in the middle, pictured in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, 1945.Keeping in touch with family back home, Michelle told everyone what classes she was taking and Steve said he could see that many of them aligned with the courses Harriet had taken nearly 70 years before.

“I know my mom would be so proud of Michelle,” Steve said. “There was a legacy there. It wasn’t intentional at first, but it’s now become such a huge part of Michelle’s story and our family story.”

Lester and Harriet were married three months after V-J Day. Like many in their generation who had seen economic catastrophe followed by global war, they looked forward to peace and prosperity and continued to do their parts in contributing to society. A native Midwesterner, Harriet adopted New Jersey as her new home and became the 106th licensed physical therapist in the state.

The couple raised two sons and Harriet practiced physical therapy until 1967, retiring as head of the Department of Physical Therapy at Rahway Hospital in Rahway, New Jersey. She lived her last years in Quincy, California, where she died in 1987.

“I’m really sad I didn’t get to meet her but I’m proud I get to continue her legacy and work with people in the same way she did,” Michelle said. “It’s why I joined the profession — to help others, to alleviate pain. That’s very special to me, and I know it was very special to her, too.”

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