Reflections From a Physical Therapy Student Book Club
Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes
Curled up on the couch with a book over winter break, I opened up Over My Head by Claudia L. Osborn, the inaugural pick for our book club at Duke University's Doctor of Physical Therapy Division.
I jumped into a first-person account of a doctor who suffers a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and read about what it is like to lose the ability to plan a day, remember short-term information, the ability to put your thoughts and feelings into words, and to lose all of your energy doing basic tasks.
Dr Osborn's incredible account has undoubtedly enhanced what I have studied in my Neurological Patient Management course. In this class, I learned mostly about the pathology, clinical presentation, assessment, and treatment of TBI. Not as much time was dedicated to learning about the human experience.
Fellow classmate Katie Scaff and I began our second year at Duke as new leaders of the Humanities Student Special Interest Group (SSIG), which seeks to explore the humanity of illness through stories, poetry, plays, visual art, music, performing arts, etc, to inform our practice as future physical therapists and learn about our patients as a whole.
Liz Arnold, SPT, (left) and Katie Scaff, SPT, (right)
Having participated prior in an interdisciplinary book club with medical students and thoroughly enjoying the discussion it created, we decided to create our own book club for our classmates.
With the encouragement of our faculty mentor Dr Elizabeth Ross, we put together a list of book options that involved a narrative about health, wellness, and illness.
In an effort to make this experience meaningful and rich for our classmates, we prioritized their likely interests and educational needs in choosing a story that we could explore together.
We certainly wanted this to be an experience free of the financial stresses that naturally come with physical therapy school, so budgeting for books was a high priority on our list. Luckily, the Humanities SSIG receives a nominal resource each year for programming. We wanted to provide our classmates with something tangible to claim as their own. We searched for second-hand copies that would cost nothing more to each student than the loose change that lives in the bottom of everyone's backpack. Used books made this possible with each student paying only $3, and part of our budget covering the rest.
Our group of about 20 classmates met to discuss the book together after winter break. A few students read the book while on a global service learning trip treating survivors of stroke and individuals with Parkinson disease. Many felt that reading this personal account of survivorship and obstacles of everyday life improved their ability to empathize with their patients, and to use alternative methods of communication and treatment interventions to facilitate the healing process.
Duke University's Doctor of Physical Therapy Division book club meeting
We shared a rich discussion about certain passages that were particularly powerful. Dr Osborn's road to acceptance of her TBI was a long journey, especially due to her lack of insight into her mental deficits and determination to practice medicine again.
As part of the discussion, we questioned how our approach to addressing unrealistic goals and patient expectations may have changed for the better regarding Dr Osborn's impatience to practice medicine again. While potentially unsafe and not feasible, would taking away that hope to one day return to her former self be more harmful to her healing? Is it our role as physical therapists to provide alternative methods to restore meaning to one's life, or is it something that must first come from within the patient?
While there is no right or wrong, this book allowed us to explore the "what ifs" and gray areas of our practice that will lay the foundation for our growth as future health professionals.
Our takeaways from the book include having patience with those who struggle with mental deficits and decline; understanding that a person may not have insight into their condition; considering how someone's condition affects their everyday life within their home and community; and realizing that a patient's road to acceptance of their new reality after a life-changing event takes time, self-awareness, realistic goal setting, and a support system.
We are planning for our next book club reading and are considering Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.
Through these stories and group discussions, we can hope to grow in understanding and empathy for our patients and our future roles as health care providers. In doing so, we hope to become better physical therapists and human beings.
Liz Arnold, SPT, and Katie Scaff, SPT, are students at Duke University. To learn more about how Liz and Katie started a book club with their classmates, connect with them on Facebook.