Podcast: Listen to 'This Is Why'
When I was 4 or 5 I wanted to grow up to be a cowgirl. I envisioned riding on the back of a majestic thoroughbred with the wind whipping through my hair, finding adventure on the open range.
A few years later, I decided I wanted to be a doctor. Never mind that I fainted at the first sight of blood-I figured I'd get over that. I was intrigued by the idea of determining the cause of a disease or illness, formulating a plan to fix it, and making the person "all better."
In junior high school my aspirations turned toward teaching. I loved learning, and to share that passion with others struck me as exhilarating. But then, in high school, I read three books that introduced me to a profession I hadn't known existed. All of them were true stories of individuals with disabilities who had overcome challenges to live full and rewarding lives. Physical therapy had played a key role in each case.
I turned to such now-quaint resources as the dictionary and the encyclopedia to learn more about this fascinating vocation. After a bit of investigation I was convinced. This was it! This was the profession I wanted to pursue.
I've been privileged over the course of my career to have helped many people live fuller and more rewarding lives, just like the physical therapists (PTs) in the books that sparked my interest. But the patient interactions that have left the most indelible marks on me are those in which I've learned more from the patient than he or she has learned from me.
One patient in particular stands out. In my first year of practice, I worked with Brien, a young man with leukemia who'd developed graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) as a side effect of his bone marrow transplant. By the time I began working with him he was non-ambulatory. Brien's soft tissues were severely contracted, leaving him with limited movement in all his joints. Over the course of several months, whenever he was healthy enough, he came to therapy three times a week. The day he took his first steps in more than a year, he brought tears to my eyes.
Brien's courage and persistence were awe inspiring. He never stopped working to get stronger and more mobile, but more important, he never stopped living his life. Two of his great joys were creating wooden puzzles and fishing, and he continued to do those things. He made plans to go back to college when his health stabilized.
Sadly, Brien's fight against GVHD ended a week before Christmas due to pulmonary complications of the disease. His death upset me, of course, but his legacy was a lifetime of lessons. He taught me to live each day to the fullest. Not to waste my energy wishing for what can't be, but, rather, to look upon each day as a gift and to anticipate the future with hope. To focus not on my deficits, but on optimizing my strengths. I work every day to apply the lessons that Brien taught me-in my work with patients and students, and in my personal life, as well.
My time with Brien taught me, at the beginning of my career, that I'd found the perfect profession for me. As a PT, I've had more adventure than any cowgirl ever could experience. I've helped patients get better in a more direct and personal way than most physicians ever have the opportunity to experience. I've shared my love of learning with scores of bright and dedicated students. In this way I hope I've honored Brien's memory.
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