• This Is Why

    From Conga Line to Grand Dance

    A writer finds her career footing in physical therapy.

    Podcast: Listen to 'This Is Why'

    I'd never heard of physical therapy when I entered the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in fall 1977. I'd considered a career in physical education, given my participation in and passion for sports, but elected instead to pursue another interest, writing, and seek a degree in communications.

    Since I didn't know anyone at the school, I attended a freshman mixer. I found myself in a conga line behind a girl named Jane who became my best friend and roommate. She was pursuing a degree in physical therapy. Though it would be years before I would work in the field myself, that introduction influenced my initial and later career choices.

    As Jane's studies progressed, I became a frequent practice patient for range-of-motion measurements, palpations, and manipulations. Because of those experiences, upon graduation I sought employment in health care communications, and subsequently worked as a writer and editor in that field for nearly 20 years.

    After 2 shoulder surgeries and subsequent physical therapy, however, I was ready to switch from writing about health care to hands-on participation. I consulted with my physical therapists (PTs), who encouraged me to pursue either a master of physical therapy degree—which was standard then—or an associate degree to become a physical therapist assistant (PTA). Because of family and financial considerations, I pursued the latter.

    Prior to graduation, I was called in for an interview at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. While I didn't see myself working there, I figured the interviewing experience would be helpful. After 4 hours at the center, however, I felt overwhelmingly that I belonged there. Fortunately, MD Anderson felt the same way. It's now been my professional home for nearly 6 years.

    People often ask me such questions as, "What can you possibly do with cancer patients?" and, "Isn't it depressing?" I reply by citing success stories: The patient with breast cancer who arrived at the center with very limited shoulder range of motion, but had functional use upon discharge. The patient who'd had a stem cell transplant and initially could walk only 600 feet in 6 minutes, but who'd increased that distance to 1,500 feet by discharge. The young man who'd had an internal hemipelvectomy—removal of the pelvis on 1 side—and was told he never would walk again, yet who progressed from a wheelchair, to crutches, to 1 crutch, to using no assistive device at all.

    Of course, not all of our patients survive, and that's tough on our committed team of PTs, occupational therapists, and assistants. But we do make a difference for patients by doing our utmost to keep them motivated and moving.

    Patients sometimes tell me therapy is the 1 thing they look forward to. At such moments I know I'm in the right place. If I can make even a very small difference each day to a single patient or caregiver, I feel I'm not merely making a living, but helping to make a life.

    Beyond the success stories, I've seen that disease is a great equalizer. It doesn't matter where patients come from, what religion they practice, whether they are gay or straight, or young or old. What matters is that they all want to get better. What's paramount is that each receives kind, compassionate, expert care.

    In a way, I've recently come full circle. Last October I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had surgery and have continued to work, mostly full time, while undergoing chemotherapy and biologic therapy. I now have even more to offer patients, because I've walked a mile in their shoes. From my perspectives as both a PTA and a patient of physical therapy, I feel privileged to be part of this healing profession.

    Paddison, Nancy 75x110

    Nancy V. Paddison, PTA, BA, is a rehabilitation services team member at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.  

    Leave a comment: