• Defining Moment

    Coming Clean

    When housekeeping reveals more than just dirt.

    Author Defining Moment with Patient

    Listen to 'Defining Moment'

    I went into physical therapy because of the good job outlook, relaxed wardrobe, and what I anticipated would be a career free of stress and emotional drama. But I ended up working with combat casualties at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. It was located across the street from my new apartment, and when I saw the hospital sign, I sent in my resume—naively equating an easy commute with an easy job.

    I was completely unprepared for what I would see that very first day, when, filled with optimism, I walked across the street and past the armed guards at the front gate.

    The wardrobe was relaxed and no one was dying, but hours were long and the stress was constant. All of my patients were either double or triple amputees, and they had the kinds of major orthopedic injuries you get when you walk across a bomb—pelvic fractures, open abdomens, complicated lower extremity fractures. Without any warning, I found myself flung far down a rabbit hole, where my colleagues and I treated 150 combat amputees a day from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Across town, my friend Stacey was an emergency-flight nurse. She spent her days in a helicopter delivering people who were sick or mangled to the hospital. The rest of my friends all were lawyers. Because that's how it is in Washington—everyone is either a lawyer or a politician.

    I kept telling my friends that I was going to leave Walter Reed and find a new job with less stress and better hours. But as the years went by, I never got my feet underneath me long enough to leave.

    My lawyer friends were fun and interesting. But when happy hour dissolved into talk of law briefs, corporate accounts, and new associates, I would drift over to Stacey. "They're waving their resumes around." I would say. Stacey would laugh appreciatively.

    Stacey and I never talked about our jobs. I knew only the most basic details about what she did, and vice-versa. But I figured she probably had those nights that I experienced, where you lay awake, trying to tune out the nonstop movie of the day that was on continuous repeat loop. We sure weren't going to replay out day at happy hour too.

    While our friends were busy dissecting their careers, Stacey and I would sit together at the end of the bar and invent jobs for each other—ones that did not involve playing roles in other people's nightmares.

    "I've got the perfect one for you. Are you ready for this? Renting towels at Rehoboth Beach."

    "Shut up! I'm starting a fund to send you to dog-grooming school."

    One night Stacey brought a colleague to happy hour—Nancy, a nurse from the intensive care unit. Nancy had put herself through nursing school by cleaning houses, and still ran a small cleaning company on the side.

    As usual, there was much resume-waving and job-related chatter. This trickled down to talk of new associates, law clerks, and, finally, cleaning ladies. In the process, Nancy's cleaning company got hired to clean the house of one of the lawyers, Christa, over the Christmas holidays.

    Soon after that, our lawyer friends left town for Christmas. Stacey and I spent the holidays working, meeting occasionally for breakfast on our days off.

    "Has Nancy's crew cleaned Christa's house yet?" I asked Stacey one morning over a cup of coffee.


    "What do you mean Thursday? Christa's coming back tomorrow!"

    Stacey burnt her tongue on her cup of coffee.

    "I am not joking!"

    Stacey blanched. She had given Nancy the wrong dates and now the Nurses were going to be humiliated in front of the Lawyers.

    I was surprised that Stacey had gotten the dates confused, because at work she juggles life or death details all day long. But she recovered quickly and was back to juggling the details, packing me into her car as we flew through stoplights and sped to Christa's house at what seemed like 90 miles an hour. Nancy met us there in her hospital scrubs, armed with an industrial vacuum and a sack of cleaning supplies, before bolting to work with a quickm "I really owe you."

    At first, cleaning Christa's house was fun. Funny, even like we were pulling something over on Christa.

    "Can you believe it?" We laughed back and forth to each other. "Christa thinks she's paying for some fancy cleaning crew, and she's really just getting us!"

    But our mirth and good cheer evaporated as the hours began to stack up. I was morosely chasing an elusive hair around Christa's shower when I started to question my life. What was I doing?

    By the late afternoon, Stacey and I had barely cleaned half of the house when, Christa called Stacey's cell phone. I was in the living room in bare feet, vacuuming and dusting simultaneously. Stacey signaled frantically to turn the vacuum off and we both sank down into the couch while Stacey waited a few rings before answering.

    "Hello? Oh, hey! How's your vacation going? Uh huh. Hmmm. Yeah. Oh. Me? Nothing. Just hanging out."

    I glanced over at Stacey as she talked to Christa. There was a smudge of dirt on her cheek. Her hair was matted and plastered in sweaty clumps to her forehead.

    Stacey hung up the phone. We looked at each other for a long second before running back to our respective chores. We were 2 dedicated medical professionals cleaning a lawyer's house. It was the one imaginary career we'd never made up for each other.

    After that day, Stacey and I never invented new jobs for each other ever again.

    I can't speak for Stacey, but the Saturday I spent cleaning Christa's house was a turning point for me. I had bailed out a fellow medical provider because she and I were in similar foxholes. We had hard jobs. Jobs we couldn't describebecause they were so emotionally messy. But every day at work, we did something that really mattered.

    Existing in a flood of terrible injuries, rather than isolated hard cases that might have given me an opportunity to be self-reflective. I viewed my job only as stressful and difficult. But, there on my hands and knees, meditatively scrubbing Christa's floor, I realized that I actually was part of something much larger than myself. For better or for worse, I was a part of a team of people who literally were getting service members with crippling injuries back on their feet again.

    Christa never found out who cleaned her house.

    Stacey, who for years had toyed with the idea of finding an easier job, ultimately admitted to me that, "I'm a lifer, I guess."

    I stayed at Walter Reed for 9 years. When the war casualties stopped coming, I finally left. I am still a physical therapist, but I don't lie awake at night anymore. Stacey is still a nurse.

    We are in the right places.

    Author Defining Moment

    Adele Levine, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS, is the author of Run, Don't Walk: The Curious and Chaotic Life of a Physical Therapist Inside Walter Reed Army Medical Center.


    Beautiful description of the fox hole.
    Posted by Malcolm Macaulay -> @JU[@ on 1/27/2015 9:59:41 AM
    Thank you for sharing this heart warming and funny story. I too thought often about giving up the stress of being a PT, but, in the end, the fulfillment which the job provided was a reward in itself.
    Posted by Nancy Epstein -> CNP`E on 1/27/2015 3:58:04 PM

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