• This Is Why

    Before Tucson

    The healing power of physical therapy.

    Podcast: Listen to 'This Is Why'  

    June 27, 1991, is a day I'll never forget—and never remember. Just as January 8, 2011, always will be for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

    That day, I was working as a Philadelphia police officer alongside my twin brother, Brian. We partnered well, having served together in the United States Coast Guard before becoming cops. For our first 2 years on the force, we were successful in locking up the bad guys and making it through our dangerous job without significant injury. That changed in the early morning hours of one fateful day.

    We had stopped a car for a busted headlight. Car stops are dangerous, because you never know who you're stopping, even for a minor offense. There were 3 men in the vehicle, and I was shot point-blank in the head by the rear-seat passenger. The bullet entered the right corner of my right eye, severing my optic nerve, and passed through the right hemisphere of my brain, coming to rest in the occipital lobe. My brother returned fire at the fleeing assailants and performed CPR. A responding officer drove us to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

    I was placed on life support in a medically induced coma. The bullet and dead tissue were removed, and doctors monitored the pressure on my brain. My family and friends kept vigil. The assailants were captured that same night, but my loved ones were little comforted, not knowing what kind of life I'd be able to lead—should I even survive.

    After 3 weeks on life support, my deficits became clear. I had difficulty walking correctly due to reduced strength and balance. I had generalized vision loss in my right eye and left peripheral-field vision loss in my left eye. My damaged brain left me, for a time, unable to process nonverbal cues, and with short-term memory loss.

    I was sent off to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital to work on those things. Their team helped me cope and compensate for my injuries. Scanning therapy opened up my field of vision. Writing notes helped counter my memory loss. Various activities addressed my loss of balance. Gradually, my deficits decreased.

    As I became more and more independent, I appreciated the huge role physical therapy was playing in my recovery. My physical therapists (PTs) would give me activities to do that initially seemed simple and meaningless, but the difficulty level increased over time. I responded physically and mentally to the challenges my PTs presented. I even got to the point that I in some ways felt better than I had before I was shot.

    During this time, I started wondering if I could help people regain their independence in the ways my PTs were assisting me. I picked their brains about how I might go about joining their profession. After completing my rehabilitation, I transitioned with the help of Magee staff into a community college program that included classes in anatomy and physiology. I then enrolled in the physical therapist assistant (PTA) program at Harcum College in nearby Bryn Mawr. After 4 years of outpatient therapy, I joined the staff of a private residential health care facility as a PTA.

    One of the first residents with whom I worked had had a stroke after being involved in a bicycle accident. He couldn't get out of bed because of uncontrolled tremors. Using the neuro- developmental techniques I'd learned in school, I helped train him to use his muscles effectively. Eventually, he was able to transfer safely, then to walk with the aid of a simple assistive device.

    When I saw him and his wife beaming the first time he'd taken a few steps, I knew I'd made the right career transition, even though it was one I hadn't imagined before the shooting. The motto of the Philadelphia Police Department is "Honor, Integrity, Service." What my PTs taught me—and my experience as a PTA has confirmed—is that those qualities aren't limited to jobs in law enforcement.


    Don McMullin, PTA, BS, is employed at Manor Care in West Deptford, New Jersey.