Podcast: Listen to 'This Is Why'
How many people can say they've never once questioned their choice of profession, and that they've maintained for three and a half decades an undying passion for what they do? How many can say the wisdom and joy of their career decision has been confirmed on a daily basis?
My neighbor Walt, a practicing physician, planted the idea in 1966. I was in the ninth grade. He told me physical therapy was even more hands on than was his own role in health care, and that as a physical therapist (PT) I could make a big difference in my patients' lives. Being Type A, I shadowed a PT at the local hospital, then created my own internship for high school credit. I was on my way to a degree, a vocation, and the fulfillment of a calling.
Over the years, I've worked in rural and urban hospitals, nursing homes, trauma centers, burn units, home health, neonatal and pediatric intensive care units, group homes, school systems, developmental clinics on Indian reservations, and academic institutions. More recently, I've purposefully expanded my focus from local to global.
The APTA document Professionalism in Physical Therapy: Core Values lists 7 critical elements of what it means to be the best PT one can be. For me, involvement in global physical therapy particularly reflects the core values of altruism and social responsibility.
Altruism means providing pro bono services to populations that are underserved by health care. My global outreach has spanned from fitting people for wheelchairs in the tent cities of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and the Bedouin communities of Palestine to conducting home visits in the squatter settlements of Guatemala City—all through Hope Haven International. The needs of these populations are so great, yet, to my constant amazement and gratification, even the smallest interventions and suggestions can and do vastly improve people's lives.
I have many, many positive stories to tell, but the one I'll share is that of Sofia, a 10-year-old Guatemalan girl with agenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone syndrome. I walked to her home with a pair of pediatric crutches and a tape measure so we could secure a wheelchair that would fit her. She met me at the door in her school uniform, but, heartbreakingly she could not attend school because her disability prevented her from getting around. To make a long story short, with my help she got crutches and a wheelchair, and she was able to attend school for the first time.
Social responsibility means advocating for the health and wellness needs of society, including access to physical therapy and other health care services. As a member of Health Volunteers Overseas, I taught contemporary physical therapy topics to faculty and students at the University of Managua in Nicaragua. Because I've experienced the changes in the profession of physical therapy in the United States over the past 30 years, as PTs have gained in autonomy and direct access, I could relate to the desires of Nicaraguan PTs to move their profession forward. I also had the opportunity, as a Fulbright Scholar, to have an impact on physical therapy in Chile, where the concepts of program assessment and accreditation are gaining interest.
I have brought my American university students to Guatemala to experience and gain appreciation of the value of altruism and social responsibility. Many say they have found life-changing the chance to work side by side with Guatemalan PT students.
My experiences locally and around the world convince me that the hearts of PTs everywhere are connected. Perhaps that explains the depth of my passion for our common profession.
Lana Svien, PT, PhD, MA, is a professor in and chair of the department of physical therapy at the University of South Dakota.