Written October 30, 2021
October is Physical Therapy Month! What a beautiful time to reflect on the years I’ve spent serving patients, families, and communities nationally and internationally.
When I graduated from Stony Brook’s Physical Therapy Program in 2014, I had an unclear vision for how my career would develop. I was not certain if I would pursue specialization in orthopedics/sports or pediatrics. Instead of forcing a path, I allowed my heart to open to any experiences and opportunities that came my way. I welcomed the wisdom of colleagues, professors, and mentors. I welcomed my intuition, trusting my heart to guide me on the path of least resistance. I have worked in many states, settings, and specialties. I have traveled in pursuit of my passion, uncovering truths about myself and the world at large that has shaped how I interact with people and places.
Over the course of seven years as a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I have learned more about myself and the individuals I serve. While I still have great interest in orthopedics and manual therapy practices, I now consider myself to be a Pediatric Physical Therapist. As I continue my path as a pediatric physical therapist, I move towards mastery – a target that is forever moving, evolving, and changing as I grow.
I am grateful for all the people I have crossed paths with during this journey as a physical therapist. While all I have learned is not easily packaged into a few sentences, perhaps these seven lessons I’ve learned may resonate with you – whether you’re also a Physical Therapist, work in healthcare, or are moving towards mastery in your own profession.
Hold the space to listen.
The stories we are told are truly precious to hold, and are often the most important part of patient care. Spending extra time on subjective reports and really listening to what our patients are saying will help us to create a meaningful rehabilitation experience. In Tanzania, a common Swahili phrase is “haraka haraka haina baraka,” which translates to hurrying has no blessing. If we are rushing, thinking too much about productivity (is my time spent in conversation billable time?!), or seeming to have one foot out the door with our patients, this does not create a safe space. While it’s true we can always use more time to document and do the less glamorous parts of our job, it’s still possible to take the time to sit with our patients. To actively listen, welcoming their story.
After traveling to Tanzania three times, I have seen how impactful this time to connect can be. Every greeting was met with exchanges of empathy, asking, How are you, how is your family? We were never rushing to start our day. Now, rather than jumping into what I perceive to be important at each evaluation/treatment session, I take time to ask the family/patient more questions. What would you like to work on today? How is everything going for you? What’s important to you in this process?
Healing can be an emotional journey for our patients and families. Holding space to listen allows them to fully express themselves in their truest way. One of the greatest blessings we can give our patients and families is this space.
Stay insatiably curious.
Learning is a lifelong journey filled with curiosity. We can never know everything. It seems every day at work, I am met with something I don’t know. A diagnosis I’ve never seen before, a question I’ve never gotten before. This inspires me greatly. I love that I can never know everything. This feeds my passion for ongoing learning. There are so many resources to tap into when we don’t know the answer: research articles/evidence, mentors, experts in the field, continuing education courses, colleagues.
I am never be afraid to ask a question or admit I don’t know the answer. This keeps me honest, while also allowing myself to seek the answer without my ego getting in the way. Following my curiosity helps me maintain a playful spirit with the infinite pathways towards learning.
Heal yourself while healing others.
Our willingness to heal ourselves increases our capacity to heal others. It’s true that healthcare providers can be perceived as the worst patients. “Practice what you preach,” they say! We tell our patients to rest, but we don’t take a lunch break. We say to get enough sleep, but our daily stress gets in the way of restful nights. We say to get regular exercise, but we find it difficult to find movement ourselves. We give care and compassion to others, but how do we give it back to ourselves?
I’ve realized by healing myself – emotionally and physically – I have been able to meet my patients and families with more compassion, presence, and understanding. There was a time where my empathy would leave me drained at the end of the work day. When I used to treat many patients with migraine headaches, I kept a clear quartz crystal in my pocket so I could send their energy into it, rather than absorbing it myself. Now, I don’t need a crystal in my pocket to release the burden of carrying the stories of others. I can be present, empathetic, compassionate without it hurting my own spirit. This has come through my practices with seeing a therapist, meditating, breathing practices, tapping, and being willing to heal my own injuries.
It’s not easy to carve out the time to take care of ourselves when we are constantly caring for others. Yet, it’s never selfish. Take care of yourself in the process and see how this impacts the individuals you work with.
Don’t forget to play.
Having fun is okay – there’s so many ways to play! This may sound easy coming from a Pediatric Physical Therapist, but sometimes it’s easy to forget how to play at work. Did you recently learn something new in a class? Practice it on some patients! Did you read a new article? Try some of the recommendations in your clinic! Take time to welcome a fresh look at your patients, play with the knowledge you’ve gained, and have fun with it. Life’s too short to take it too seriously.
Be a generalist.
Exploring different frameworks and specialties is valuable. There seems to be lot of pressure to be come a specialist in the field of physical therapy. After graduating from physical therapy school in 2014, I worked at an orthopedic, manual therapy clinic in New York. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue orthopedics/sports or pediatrics. I spent the first two years of my career playing with these options, exploring them more deeply. When I went from working at a children’s hospital to an outpatient orthopedic clinic during my first travel physical therapy assignment, I realized how much I missed working with kids. I was getting some kids with orthopedic diagnoses at the clinic, but I found myself missing the complex neurodevelopmental population. It wasn’t until 2.5 years out from school that I learned I am meant to be a pediatric physical therapist.
Even in the specialities of pediatrics, sports, orthopedics, geriatrics, women’s health, etc., there are ways to further specialize. Many people feel they have to decide what their specialty within a specialty is. I think this can be a lot of pressure and also can pigeon hole our knowledge into one area. Being a generalist gives us many different frameworks to work off of when seeing patients. It gives us options for treatment strategies.
Even though I am a pediatric physical therapist, I still love exploring other frameworks for treatment. When I got to the APTA Combined Sections Meeting (CSM), I always attend continuing education courses from other specialty areas. I recently took a manual therapy course through the Institute of Physical Art to have more tools when working with my pediatric patients. I guess this is another way to play and staying insatiably curious… never stop exploring!
Use a team approach.
We are never alone, so don’t be afraid to lean on each other. Most likely, you are not the only healthcare provider seeing your patient. Taking time to connect with other providers can help us get a bigger picture of our patients’ needs, while also helping us feel supported as a provider. It’s also okay to refer patients to other practitioners who may help meet their needs. There have been many time I’ve realized I am not the best provider for a patient and have referred them to another physical therapist, or another discipline.
In addition to connecting to other providers, lean on each other at work. I have been blessed to work with many incredible teams of physical therapists and other healthcare providers (occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, behavioral specialists). We have shared patients, which has meant we’ve shared successes, losses, and struggles together. In 2019, my coworkers and I had a shattering experience of losing our five-year-old patient to cancer. The way we moved through our grief and healing, while also being there for the family, was together. Our team found that, through our togetherness, we could eventually heal and grow.
We put so much value on independence in our culture, but interdependence gives us so many more options for healing, compassion, and knowledge translation. I am so grateful I’ve had so many inquisitive, supportive, kind, compassionate coworkers around me. We have laughed and cried together and I wouldn’t change any part of our journey.
Take time off.
You need not feel guilty for taking time away. I cannot emphasize this one enough. Time off can give you the energy to return to work with presence. I have known many providers to feel guilty for taking time off. While we have patients to care for, it’s crucial to maintain a work/life balance to prevent burnout and take care of ourselves.
Take a day, take a week, take two weeks off. Take care of yourself and give yourself time to breathe, please! You deserve it, I promise.
A note of gratitude
I am so grateful for this career, which gives me infinite opportunities across the nation and globe. I have worked in New York, Florida, Washington, and Massachusetts. I have worked in different settings and clinics, which have all taught me so much. Most of all, I’ve worked with so many incredible patients, families, and communities who continue to teach me about myself and how to better serve others. I am humbled by the wisdom I receive on a daily basis, inspired to move towards mastery as a pediatric physical therapist, and insatiably curious about the infinite possibilities in this career.
Thank you to Stony Brook University’s Physical Therapy Program for giving me invaluable foundational knowledge. Thank you to my family for supporting my career and education. Thank you to my mentors who have given me valuable advice over the years. Thank you to the communities in Tanzania who welcome me and other physical therapists into your hearts for ongoing learning. Thank you for your support, always. I can’t wait to see where I can grow from here in this beautiful profession.