Podcast: Listen to 'This Is Why'
Dolma is frail, with leathery skin. Her dry, cracked hands and persistent cough tell her story. In 2004, I lived with her, her husband, and their four children in rural Nepal. Day after day I saw how hard she worked--farming, raising her kids, cooking over an open fire. She has a fourth-grade education and a lazy husband who gambles away their limited wealth. She smiles only when she coddles her children and shares her hopes of better lives for them.
I met Maria during a medical outreach trip to Honduras in 2009. She has the most beautiful smile--toothless yet glowing. Maria and her husband are not able to have conceive, making her stand out in a rural community where a woman's worth is measured by her ability to bear and raise children. With help from the aid organization Heifer International, she has created a different worth, building a profitable business selling handspun crafts to tourists. She takes great pride in her work, and has made enough money that she now hopes to adopt a child.
Sara is from Sudan. She left her family to live in Norway, learn the language, and study physical therapy at Bergen University College, determined to supplement the handful of physical therapists serving her vast homeland. I taught her to ski, of all things. Bergen faculty are helping the Sudanese develop a physical therapy program and are sponsoring courageous women such as Sara, who will bring their knowledge and skills back to their impoverished African nation.
All three of these amazing women are helping to create a better world. And each has fueled and guided my journey as a physical therapist. As I reflect on the ways in which they've done this, I draw from bestselling author Daniel Pink's most-recent book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In it, he writes about three essential elements of human motivation--autonomy, our desire to direct our own lives; mastery, our need to keep getting better at something that matters; and purpose, our yearning to serve something larger than ourselves.
Dolma taught me to value my autonomy. She has had no opportunity to direct her own life. She couldn't choose a professional path for herself. But her very lack of choice helped steer me toward my own career path. I chose physical therapy because it aligns with the value I place on a mind-body approach to ameliorating pain. I had been a yoga instructor before becoming interested in physical therapy, and my goal is to create a healing environment that taps the power of mindfulness--a sense of meditative self-awareness--in people who are suffering.
Maria schooled me in mastery. She could not master her culture's prized art of child rearing, but she found her own path, her own mastery. Maria brought out the perfectionist in me. As a physical therapist, I strive for excellence in managing patients who have complex conditions, particularly those who are in chronic pain. I'm guided by the understanding that healing occurs on many levels, making each patient's case unique and steeped in its own challenges.
Sara is my model for undeniable purpose. She endured cultural isolation in Norway to gain the skills she would need to help her people. She committed herself to a cause much larger than herself. I was astounded to learn that so many places in the world have few or no movement specialists to meet their people's needs. So many lives can be changed for the better by training physical therapists to serve in developing countries. My purpose now is to be part of this transformation.
The strength of Dolma, Maria, and Sara in holding their families and communities together has given me strength and direction in my chosen profession. The surprising truth about what motivates me as a physical therapist is that only by traveling the globe myself did I come to fully determine and embrace my role in serving its people.
Wren McLaughlin, PT, DPT, MS, is a staff therapist at Core Physical Therapy in Bellingham, Washington.
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