• Defining Moment

    The Gift of Giffords

    Her inspirational story serves as a shout-out to physical therapy.

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    I've never for a moment in my 17-year career as a physical therapist (PT) second-guessed my decision to enter this profession. But Gabrielle Giffords' words, published in the New York Times earlier this year, crystallized what I most cherish about our role in society.

    Giffords, of course, was a member of the United States Congress from Arizona when she was shot in the head and severely injured at a constituent event near Tucson in January 2011. She since has struggled—with great determination and the help of her rehabilitation team—to recover from a wound that easily could have ended her life.

    I, too, have cared for patients who have sustained gunshot wounds to the head. In 1 instance a teenaged boy pulled a trigger on himself, inflicting severe facial damage and incurring brain injury. Among the patients I treated at a trauma center in Reno—the largest one in a 120-mile radius—were a construction worker who'd been shot in the head by a nail gun and a driver whose skull had been penetrated by a shard of windshield glass. The worst of the worst.

    These experiences provided me with some insight—as I've read about her case—into what it's taken for Gabrielle Giffords to reclaim her life to such an amazing extent. With the intensive guidance of her team of PTs, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and other health care staff, she has relearned how to walk, talk, dress, bathe, swallow, write, prepare meals, and otherwise resume taking care of herself.

    That's why I went into this field in the first place, and it's why I've stayed. PTs go 1-on-1 with every patient. We're entrusted with the opportunity to help bring people back to being themselves, coming back home, and returning to life itself.

    It's clear that Gabby Giffords knows all of this firsthand. In fact, the op-ed piece she wrote for the Times this past January—published on the 3-year anniversary of the tragic day on which she was shot and 6 of her constituents were killed by a gunman—was titled “The Lessons of Physical Therapy.” Here's part of what she wrote:

    “I've spent the past three years learning how to talk again, how to walk again. I had to learn to sign my name with my left hand. It's gritty, painful, frustrating work, every day. Rehab is endlessly repetitive. And it's never easy, because once you've mastered some movement or action or word, no matter how small, you move on to the next. You never rest.”

    That's a work ethic to which PTs can relate. I estimate that I've treated about 10,000 patients. When I worked in an acute care unit in a hospital, I easily averaged 10 to 12 a day. I often worked weekends, as well.

    Like my colleagues, I've operated quietly behind the scenes, week after week and month after month, doing the hard work that must be done. Patients recovering from strokes, spinal cord injuries, chronic diseases, and other impairments have regained function—inch by inch and step by step.

    As I age, I increasingly face my own physical challenges related to my work. Already I've had surgery to repair 1 shoulder, and I'm now facing surgery on the other for a similar issue. The knee injury I sustained in college—the incident, by the way, that led me down the path to becoming a PT—has had lingering effects. My years of heavy lifting in the trauma center added up, despite my best efforts to ease their toll. Still, I count these aches and pains as dues I gladly pay for the privilege of doing what I love. When I consider the struggles through which so many of my patients have persevered, my physical issues seem minor indeed.

    Some days, of course, the emotional challenges of what we do rips our hearts out. Other days, however, we witness our patients achieving successes that are absolutely thrilling. Thanks in part to our knowledge and skills, the individuals with whom we work once again are able to stand from a chair, reach for a cup of coffee with an arm that once was stricken motionless, and perform other milestone acts of independence that are cause for celebration.

    Gabby Giffords has emerged from her ordeal as a public face for meaningful reform of gun laws. But probably without intending to do so or even realizing it, she also may inspire others to enter our profession, either as PTs or as physical therapist assistants. With the aging of the baby boom generation, more Americans than ever are in need of the services we provide. Yes, we continue to face challenges related to reimbursement and regulatory change. Ours never has been an easy job, and it's unlikely to get easier in the near future. But no matter the obstacles, we always somehow make sure our patients are taken care of. That's our bottom line.

    I recently stepped away from direct patient care. I now support a team of more than 6,000 rehabilitation professionals who cumulatively deliver in-home health care to hundreds of thousands of people across the country. It's an exciting role—one in which I'm called upon to translate my accumulated experience and expertise into day-to-day oversight. I'm helping to teach the next generation of clinicians. My job is to see that our therapists invest in each patient the same dedication they would devote to caring for their own family members and themselves.

    But I do miss the direct connection to patients. Hardly a day passes without the idea crossing my mind that someday I'll go back to the clinic. Gabby Giffords has reinforced in me the knowledge that physical therapy offers unique rewards to both patient and practitioner. To see them, all we need do is observe our impact on our patients' lives.

    Defining Moment Author

    Dan Miller, PT, MSPT, MBA, is vice president of therapy services at Amedisys Home Health & Hospice, based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  

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