Podcast: Listen to 'This Is Why'
I've always loved anatomy. One of my earliest memories is the fascination I felt when I saw a human skeleton hanging in a museum. When I was a bit older, I devoured the chapters about orthopedic injuries in my mother's nursing books. I got the highest score in class on a fourth-grade health test that asked the names of bones and muscles, even though I wasn't an outstanding student at the time. And I loved my Visible Woman! (How many future physical therapists had a Visible Man or Visible Woman anatomy model?)
When I was in high school my mother suggested physical therapy as a possible career for me. I worked in the school's training room during football and basketball seasons, and the summer before my senior year I went to a camp for student trainers where I worked with PTs for the first time. The experience confirmed my mother's hunch that physical therapy and I were a great match.
In PT school I found myself among a group of students of outstanding intelligence who all were deeply motivated to make a positive difference for patients. But I had no such grand ambitions. I didn't want to work in a hospital, and I wasn't consumed by the need to help transform vulnerable patients' lives. I didn't aspire to participate in research that would lead to great discoveries to ease people's pain and increase their mobility.
I distinctly remember a moment of panicked insecurity I experienced one day in class. Suddenly I thought, "I'm not a good enough person to do this job." I truly was afraid that I cared more about bones than I did people. But gradually that feeling changed.
The transformation began when patients came to our class to tell us how physical therapy had helped them overcome severe, life-altering injuries and accidents. I was inspired by the cardiovascular perfusionist, for example, who was able to return to work with a forearm prosthesis. I was energized by the man with multiple sclerosis whose key to happiness was pushing past his personal obstacles to begin every day with a swim.
But I don't think I truly felt worthy of the letters "PT" until I worked with a patient during an acute care affiliation in North Carolina. The patient was 26 and so was I. He'd had a major hemorrhagic stroke and was breathing on his own, but he was incapable of much more than that. I would see him along with the occupational therapist, my primary goal being to help him try to sit unsupported on the side of the bed.
I worked with him daily, and on each occasion his parents were there, cheering him on. I was thrilled the first time he balanced himself for several seconds. I was devastated, however, when the medical resident told me that the stroke had occurred because he'd stopped taking his hypertension medication--he'd switched jobs and hadn't yet had health insurance at the new one.
I've been calling this contemporary of mine my "patient," but in a real sense he was my teacher. He taught me how much I could care for someone who was weak and vulnerable. He taught me the deep satisfaction of helping a person achieve the most elemental tasks.
It's often said that when you meet the right individual, he or she can make you a better person. But I think it's also true that a job that serves the greater good can, in a sense, elevate you. I've been a PT for a dozen years now, and I still love bones. But it's the flesh and blood surrounding those bones--and the ways in which I help maximize the lives of the living, breathing beings who compose that anatomical package--that fuels and thrills me every day.
It turned out that I was, in fact, a good enough person to be a PT. But it was the profession itself that brought me to that place.
Lisa B. Minn, PT, MSPT, has a private practice in Northern California and a Web site at www.lisab-minn.com.