Defining Moment Cycle of Life A career that was decades in the making. By Timothy Haitz, PT, DPT | November 2014 Listen to 'Defining Moment' When I was growing up, kids taunted me and called me “swivel'' because of my unnatural gait. It wasn't until I was 30 years old that I discovered that 1 of my legs was an inch shorter than the other. I finally knew why I couldn't walk like the other kids. It all began when I was 14 years old. I was riding my bike home from baseball practice and was hit by a car traveling 35 miles per hour. I was thrown 20 feet across the pavement and sustained a compound fracture of the right femur, tibia, and fibula. I had a dislocated pelvis and jaw, spondylolisthesis of lumbar vertebrae 4 and 5, a torn anterior cruciate ligament, a crushed medial meniscus, and stretched medial and lateral collateral ligaments. Because of the seriousness of the compound fracture and the amount of debridement involved, the doctors initially recommended amputation of my right leg above the knee. My mother argued, however, that they should risk infection before amputating. I spent 4 days in a coma, 3 weeks in the intensive care unit, and an additional 3 months in skeletal traction. My bones were set without any external or internal fixation, with a cast on my lower right leg. After traction, my legs were placed into a 1 1/2 hip spica cast, where they remained for 4 months. I didn't walk for a year. Because I'd been in a cast for such a long time, during a critical growth period, only half of my lower body developed normally. My entire right leg remained smaller than my left—smaller muscles, decreased diameter, shorter length. My right foot was a full shoe size smaller than my left. I was completely unaware of what was happening to me physically, however. I never was reevaluated after I left of the hospital. I simply grew into my injury and unknowingly compensated for my shorter right leg by contorting my upper body to even myself out. I developed a condition called functional scoliosis. I walked with a swivel, as some of the meaner kids were happy to note and publicize. The years passed. I graduated from high school and joined my family's commercial fishing business, spending weeks at a time on ships along the Eastern Seaboard trawling for cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder. My back ached constantly—sometimes so bad that I couldn't stand up straight. I lived like that until I was 30. When I couldn't take the pain anymore, I decided to seek help. A friend recommended Michael Noonan, PT, MS, who had a private practice near my Rhode Island home. Michael identified my leg discrepancy and found that I had left posterior rotation and ilial upslip. He used muscle energy techniques to rotate my pelvis and manual manipulation of my left lower limb to set my hips. He showed me how to adjust my gait to try to prevent the upslip and rotation from happening. He also put a 1-inch heel lift in my shoe. Michael worked diligently with me. It took years to properly set my hips because they'd been out of alignment for so long that the muscles were in spasm. As a commercial fisherman, I did not have health insurance, so I paid Michael with “in-kind services”—I kept him supplied with fish and lobsters. He also found that the ligaments in my knee were either missing or so badly stretched that the knee's stability was severely compromised. But I learned that even in my condition, I could ride a bike again. I rode with purpose, excited to reclaim a part of past life. I got to the point that I was a competitive cyclist, and I received a tremendous sponsorship that launched my professional career. I went on to become nationally ranked, winning titles at both the state and regional levels. I competed internationally, as well, going 3 times to the World Cyclocross Championships in Belgium. Meeting Michael Noonan was the moment that sent me on a path not only to physical rehabilitation and professional cycling, but also to my eventual decision to pursue a career in physical therapy. I was accepted into the early contingency program at the University of Rhode Island, earned my bachelor's degree in exercise science in 3 years, then studied 3 more years to get my doctorate in physical therapy. I now work with Michael at his practice. A PT changed my life and inspired me to seek the same opportunity to help transform the lives of others. It's funny—isn't it?—how a single event can “swivel” you toward a career you hadn't envisioned earlier in your life, but one that now seems appropriate, even fated. My journey to becoming a nationally ranked cyclist and, later, a PT, is improbable enough that it might sound like a fish story. Which I guess it sort of is, in a literal sense. One thing I'll say about that: My physical therapy bills were seafood well spent. Go to www.moveforwardpt.com, APTA's consumer website for a featured interview with this author and his mentor, Michael Noonan, PT, MS, that takes an expanded look at the account presented in this essay. Tim Haitz, PT, DPT, is on staff at Physical Therapy Services of Rhode Island, which has locations in North Kingstown and Wakefield.