• Defining Moment

    A Roof, Not a Ceiling

    One PT's climb to a sense of fulfillment.

    Defining Moment - Author with Patient

    Listen to 'Defining Moment'

    As I treated a soldier who had been shot in the thigh, I began to reflect. How did I get here—to Al Udied Air Base near Doha, Qatar, on this day in 2010? And, more important, was this where I was supposed to be?

    I thought back to when I was 15. I had been a real problem child. I was undisciplined and had a bad reputation around town. I had been kicked out of the house but had snuck back in and climbed onto the roof. My parents didn't know I was there. It was nighttime, and rain was falling. I said to myself, "I need to get out of here. I need to find out what it is that I am supposed to do in life." That night I made myself 3 promises that I felt would put distance—literally and figuratively—between where I was then and where I hoped to go. I would earn a college degree, join the military, and become a commissioned officer.

    Over the years I have attained all of those goals. But what I never could have imagined, sitting on that roof in my small Texas town more than 3 decades ago, was that I also would become a physical therapist (PT). Yet, there I was, treating this soldier in the Middle East. I asked him where he was from and what goals he had set. He was very young—19 or 20. He said he was thinking about enrolling in college. I urged him to be persistent and to pursue his dreams, whatever they might be. I was speaking from experience.

    From the time I was a teenager I had asked God to direct me, to help me find the right path. I wrestled with many trials and tribulations when I was younger, but then I discovered the world of physical therapy through a friend who knew a PT. I went to the PT's private practice and watched her as she evaluated and treated her patients. She exuded passion and caring. I thought to myself, "I could do that. I like exercise, and I like working with people." Of course, I had no idea then how difficult it was to become a PT.

    I only had a high school equivalency diploma at the time, so I enrolled in basic science courses at a community college in Houston. The profession of physical therapy was making the transition to an entry-level master's degree. I felt discouraged and thought, "This is going to take forever." But then I met another student who advised me to consider seeking an associate's degree to become a PTA.

    "What's that?" I asked.

    "A physical therapist assistant," she responded, describing the role PTAs play in supporting the work of PTs. I decided this was a good way to get my foot in the door. I applied for the program and was thrilled to be accepted.

    As I was pursuing my PTA studies I also was serving in the military, mostly in the Navy Reserves. My job involved me in weapons, diving, and Special Forces. I was a Range Master, teaching people how to shoot guns, navigate through the jungle, and avoid mines and booby traps. I had been sent to the Persian Gulf in 1988 to help escort Kuwait oil tankers. I had seen men die in military operations. It made me think: How could I best serve my comrades in arms, and my country? What was my true mission to be? What was my calling?

    On some level I still was wrestling with those questions when the young soldier in Qatar said something to me, that day in 2010, that truly resonated.

    "You must really like your job," he observed.

    "I do," I replied without much self-reflection. "What makes you say that?"

    "I can tell that you really care about what you are doing," the soldier said, "and that means a lot to me, as your patient." His words stopped me for moment. There was a great truth in what he was saying—which was, in effect, that I was exactly where I needed to be, doing what I needed to be doing to meet my own potential and best serve soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.

    "Thank you for saying that," I replied, hoping my voice didn't betray the deep emotion I was feeling.

    The truth is, nothing about becoming a PT in the military had been easy for me. I pushed through and earned my associate's degree to become a PTA, but I knew I wanted to go even further in the profession of physical therapy. As luck would have it, I met someone who guided me to the PT education program at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. It wasn't easy to get in—I had to jump several hurdles along the way—but I did, in 2004. That was just the start of a tough road.

    I have alluded to my troubled youth. I had never been much of a student. It had been difficult enough for me to get through my PTA education program. The program in Galveston was that much harder. I had to buckle down and study as I never had before. But my life experiences had taught me that anything worth achieving requires sacrifice and commitment. I was not about to give up. I had seen how many of my military brothers and sisters needed a PT to help them reclaim their careers and lives. I was determined to graduate and play that valuable role.

    Defining Moment - Author

    As the soldier in Qatar and I completed his rehab session that day, I knew it was the last time I would see him. He was headed back to the front in Afghanistan. I had successfully completed my mission, which was to help him fulfill his mission. He thanked me for getting him healthy enough to return to his unit. His friends remained in harm's way, and he wanted to help protect them and share in their responsibility.

    I wished him luck and said, "Stay low and watch your six"—a military term that references a clock face and means "watch your back." He smiled and said that he would.

    As he left, I reflected on just how deeply I really did care about what I was doing—with him, within the military, in my own life. I cared enough to have traveled, emotionally and literally, from a rooftop in a small Texas town, through a difficult educational program, to an air base on the other side of the world, where I was helping soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in a way I couldn't conceive of when I first made my 3 rooftop pledges.

    Becoming a PT had been my destiny the entire time. It just had taken that soldier to make me realize it.

    Felix Islas, Major, USAF, BSC, PT, DPT, is a major in the United States Air Force and member of the Biomedical Sciences Corps, serving as physical therapy flight commander of the 359th Medical Group at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas.


    Kudos! to you Major..Sir very inspiring. Thank you for all that you do for our bravest men & women. My heartfelt gratitude to all of you who keep us safe. God bless you.
    Posted by Cheryl Fromuth -> @IP^@N on 11/30/2014 9:44:11 PM
    So very proud of the man you have become.
    Posted by Eloisa Herrera on 12/3/2014 11:48:34 AM
    i enjoyed reading your inspiring article. Congrats on sticking to the promises that you made to yourself. Also, for going beyond that to become a PT. I know the dedication and compassion required for that career since I manage four PT clinics. My hat is off to you sir.
    Posted by Michele S Fox on 12/3/2014 11:27:27 PM
    Congratulations on pursuing and finding your passion in life.. Having been a PT for 45 years, I can understand your love for the profession. Best of luck to you in your career and in your life.
    Posted by Ann OConnell on 12/5/2014 4:06:24 PM
    This was an inspiring story... thank you for sharing!
    Posted by Heather Cavaness on 12/15/2014 3:00:59 PM
    Thank you Major Islas!!
    Posted by Jackie Armendinger on 12/20/2014 11:47:06 PM
    Thank-you for your service to our country, soldiers, and our profession.
    Posted by SSB on 12/23/2014 8:54:41 AM

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