Podcast: Listen to 'This Is Why'
I knew her from her spot near the nurses' station. If there'd been bingo, she'd be proclaiming "N32!" or "B21!" Other days, she might curse a blue streak. When that happened, I'd sometimes bring her into the physical therapy office with me and close the door to give the nurses a break.
Then came the day she fell, broke her hip, and was referred to physical therapy. She was confused during treatment but made progress in her gait. It was early spring. I realized she probably hadn't been outside in several months, so one day we ventured out into the circular drive in front of the facility, where a few freshly planted pansies decorated the facility's entrance.
Suddenly she stopped and stared down at the flowers. In a moment of brief but undeniable lucidity, she looked up at me and snapped, "You just can't take the growin' out of people!"
I'm not sure why that moment stands out among my countless patient encounters in the past 30 years. There was something about that moment of insight-seeing past the pall of dementia to witness the power of a few pansies.
The patient encounters that have stayed with me longest are those that surprised, humbled, or shocked me in some wonderful or awful way. There was, for example, the 65-year-old woman who recovered beautifully from a stroke after intense physical, occupational, and speech therapy, only to ask her brother-in-law to drop her by her house for a few minutes, where she retrieved her pistol and shot herself.
But then, too, there was an 18-month-old with severe torticollis from a car accident for whom all traditional therapies-including manipulation under anesthesia, followed by 8 weeks in a halo-had failed. Desperate to prevent the cervical fusion operation scheduled in just a few weeks, I tried my new skills in craniosacral therapy. After 4 treatments, during his naps, the torticollis had all but disappeared.
A woman in a skilled nursing facility was being seen for treatment of dense hemiplegia after a stroke. One day at lunch, the physical therapist assistant came to fetch me, saying the patient had had another stroke. The nurse had called emergency services, but would I please come look at her? Something didn't seem right.
I found her in the dining room. She was making no attempt to eat the lunch in front of her, and the left side of her face sagged. I looked directly into her eyes. She was there. A thought came to me. "Mrs. X, do you need a spit cup?" She nodded slowly. Her family had visited and slipped her some chewing tobacco, which now was filling her left cheek. End of emergency.
My patients' stories have flowed through me and left their mark. I wish I'd written some of them down when they happened, but I was too intent on getting through each day's work. Still, my patients have been an endless source of wisdom. As long as I remain open to everything they bring-pain or anger, gratitude or compassion-my opportunities for growth are limitless.
Patients have taught me the power of humor, of hope, of faith, and of sheer, gritty determination. They have deepened my understanding of the richness of my own rural Southern culture and have reinforced the value of place and relationships. They have opened windows to a depth of being that illness cannot erase. They continue to show me the power of simple things-touch, a look, a glimpse at beauty.
They say your work is what you do, whatever your job title. It's my privilege to have a job that constantly enhances my internal work. It's true-you just can't take the growing out of people.
Charity Johansson, PT, PhD, GCS, is professor of physical therapy at Elon University in North Carolina.
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