Researcher Cheryl I. Kerfeld, PT, MS, PhD Advocates for Child and Family-Centered Care

— It was a day like any other at the Mayo Clinic Hospital, Saint Marys Campus, in Rochester, Minnesota. The only difference? A bouquet of beautiful red roses.

Cheryl I. Kerfeld, PT, MS, PhD, was a recent graduate of the Mayo School of Health Related Sciences now called the Mayo Clinic School of Health Sciences’ Physical Therapy Doctoral Program and just started working full time in the Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit, when she received a referral to work with an adolescent who had recently sustained a traumatic brain injury. She walked into her session with the young boy who had been in a comatose state from his injuries, -rose in hand- hoping it would elicit some sort of response. As she sat next to him recounting the events of the day, specifically how she ended up being the elated recipient of the roses, the young boy showed the first sign of improvement since being hospitalized – he slowly turned his head and smelled the rose.

It was at this point that Dr. Kerfeld not only knew wholeheartedly that she felt gratified with her choice of becoming a physical therapist, but also decided to pursue a path that allowed her to continue her work with children. This path began while traveling the world, which also fostered her passion for global health.

Cheryl’s first job overseas took her to Armenia with Project Hope, a non-profit group dedicated to providing better health for vulnerable people around the world.  Armenia had just undergone a 6.8 magnitude earthquake, and Project Hope assembled a team of rehabilitation professionals to travel to the impacted areas and provide triage pediatric rehabilitation services. Dr. Kerfeld ultimately spent 2 years in Armenia working with the Ministry of Health and local health care professionals to develop and implement a sustainable rehabilitation clinical and teaching program. In Armenia, Kerfeld recognized her goal to become a more impactful physical therapist by addressing bigger global health problems therefore decided to further her education by pursuing a MS and PhD at the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, Washington.

“I wanted to see what more I could do beyond clinical work to improve the health of people worldwide,” said Dr. Kerfeld. “It was this grandiose dream, but I felt if anything was going to be helpful, especially to address the disparities that children with disabilities face in the world, then I would have to do more.”  After her stay in Armenia, Cheryl travelled back to the United States to further her education and earned a master’s in rehabilitation medicine and a PhD in rehabilitation science, both from the University of Washington (UW).

“Growing up I was always inquisitive. I loved investigating things when I was working clinically, but at the time, as a profession, we would perform services because we saw good results, and it was rarely put into evidence-based practice guidelines. I knew I needed to get more involved in our profession to be able to do research and provide the evidence to prove the efficacy of physical therapist services.”

It is through her own experiences as a mom of a child with a special health care need, her work clinically at Seattle Children’s Hospital, teaching and conducting research at the UW, and from her world travels that Cheryl’s view of how healthcare should be presented has been shaped. She recently received a Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) Pipeline to Proposal Award to establish a Child- and Family-Centered Research Community that Fosters Long-term Healthy Lifestyles of Children with Disabilities. Dr. Kerfeld has brought together children with disabilities, their families, and a community of stakeholders who are invested in identifying the facilitators and barriers to physical activity and participation of children who use assistive mobility devices. “This stakeholder involvement is the necessary groundwork to inform future national multisite research efforts to compare targeted interventions with the ultimate goal of fostering children’s long-term health lifestyles”.

“I am hoping to create a more holistic view of intervention. Most current healthcare interventions focus on how to change the child through therapy, surgery, or medication; I am hoping that this evolves to also looking more at what can be done beyond that of changing the child.” Dr. Kerfeld proposes doing so by assessing ways in which the environment surrounding this population can change, through changing the built environment, improving access to and availability of resources, and building the training capacity of people who work with children with disabilities and their families.

“I have always been an advocate for child- and family-centered care,” says Dr. Kerfeld, and “healthcare should be from the top down where children, families and health care providers are working collaboratively when making decisions about a patient. Through this PCORI partnership, we are giving stakeholders the opportunity of being a member of the research team, having a strong voice in deciding what should be the most important research questions that need to be asked at this time”. Cheryl was recently awarded the PCORI Tier II funding for this project!

Dr. Kerfeld is simultaneously continuing to expand her interests in the global health arena, with her recent funding from the UW Office of Global Affairs that supported her work in Peru with Manos Unidas, a non-profit inclusive school for children of all abilities. She continues to seek further global health funding that would afford her the opportunity “to accomplish her goals to improve the lives of children with disabilities internationally.”

She explains that often people view global health research and training as being “service learning” but believes the perception is slowly changing. “A big part of a country’s wealth is people, even those with disabilities. To improve the health of a country you have to show that people with disabilities can be just as healthy and just as much a productive member of society.”

Cheryl has a combined 30 years of clinical, administrative, teaching and research experience. She also has a strong record of providing service to her profession and society. She was the recipient of a 1999 Florence P. Kendall (then known as the Mary McMillan) Doctoral Scholarship from the Foundation for Physical Therapy.

“Getting this award made me feel like my profession agreed with what my goals were in furthering my education and the type of research I wanted to pursue. It told me our profession valued cross-cultural research and better understanding of the causes of disparities in health care and interventions needed to address barriers to improved health.” She credits the Foundation with being “wonderful cheerleaders, and for being there to help junior faculty and new researchers get their footing and have the support to pursue their research

Foundation Grants and Scholarships Awarded

University of Washington



  • Jirikowic T, Kerfeld CI. (2016) “Health-Promoting Physical Activity of Children Who Use Assistive Mobility Devices: A Scoping Review” The American Journal of Occupational Therapy: official publication of the American Occupational Therapy Association.

  • Kerfeld CI, Dudgeon, B, Engel, JM, Kartin, D. (2013) “Development of Items that Assess Physical Function in Children who are Wheelchair Users” Ped PT,

  • Kerfeld CI, Hoffman JM, Ciol MA, Kartin D. (2011) “Dissatisfaction with care and delayed or forgone care for children with special health care needs: The role of perceived cultural competency of health care providers” Maternal and Child Health Journal