• Defining Moment

    The Spark of Passion

    Seeing parallels in a devastating event.

    Listen to 'Defining Moment'

    Author - Defining Moment

    "Why have you chosen a career in physical therapy?"

    That's a question I've been asking for more than 37 years—first as a clinical instructor and then as an instructor within and the coordinator of a physical therapist assistant (PTA) education program. Students' responses vary. They say they want to help people. They reference their thirst for knowledge about the human body—what makes it tick and how they might help repair it. They anticipate the employment opportunities that our profession offers them.

    What does it take to be a professional in physical therapy? That, in my view, is simpler to answer. In a word, what it takes, from physical therapists (PTs) and PTAs alike, is passion.

    I recently experienced a traumatic event that tested my coping skills and shed light on the importance passion plays in helping us overcome obstacles and strive to be the best we can be at what we do. In June 2015 my family and I came home to find our house totally engulfed in flames. It could not be saved.

    That evening, as disbelief settled in about the magnitude of our loss and all the uncertainties of our drastically altered lives, numbness set in. It didn't last long, however, because our passion not only to survive, but to thrive, soon took over.

    Having had time now to reflect on that tragedy and how things have changed for the better over the past 2 years, I see parallels between our personal experiences and what we see all the time as PTs and PTAs. Life has a way of diverting everyone from their initial course. The diversion may take the form of the normal aging process, as the body changes slowly and subtly over time. Or, it may be abrupt and dramatic—related to physical injury or pathology affecting 1 or more of the major body systems, requiring significant adaptation. When our house burned to the ground, our lives in some ways were turned upside-down.

    The World Health Organization's International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health takes a biopsychosocial view of health, looking at it from biological, personal, and social perspectives. It factors in the unique characteristics of each person, including age, culture, personal interests, social roles, home, and workplace. We, as PTs and PTAs, identify and weigh these factors when we encounter patients and clients, ask questions, and see how each aspect affects that person's movement and functional abilities. We are passionate about understanding the totality of what each individual is going through, helping him or her rebuild what has been lost, and helping guide that person to a renewed level of mobility and function through our knowledge and training.

    Improving people's lives through physical therapy requires passion for studying the body's structure and functions. The elements of this miraculous design add up to human movement. So, first we learn the pieces of the puzzle. But it doesn't stop there. Our study of the human body requires recognizing the internal processes of change and adaptation that contribute to homeostasis. This, in turn, includes such maintenance processes as normal bone turnover. It also includes adaptive processes in the presence of pathology.

    But that's still not all.

    Our passion pushes us to look deeper, and to learn more. How does a person continue to function in the face of impairments? In what ways can physical therapy be employed to improve mobility? My students channel their passion into developing critical thinking skills. That leads to discovery and problem solving.

    How similar was the loss of my home to how people feel when they seek physical therapy? Their loss of mobility may be slight or great, but either way, these individuals are experiencing a new reality. They are having thoughts and feelings very similar to those that my family had right after the fire. What just happened? Where will I go? What do I need to do right now? How can I start over? What about the pain?

    These are just a few of the many questions that we may ask whenever we are faced with an overwhelming situation. And this is where community—personal and environmental factors—comes into play. My family was very fortunate to have the immediate and overwhelming support of our extended family, our church family, and the local community. It was enormously helpful as we tried to get our bearings and begin to rebuild.

    No sooner had we determined our immediate needs for food, clothing, shelter, medications, and other resources than support poured in. The community rallied to pay for our dinner that first night, provide us with clothes and lodging, and uplift us emotionally with their words, hugs, and smiles. Before we went to bed that first evening, we'd formulated a plan, divided duties among a team of helpers, and seen the light at the end of the tunnel.

    Throughout the recovery process, community members checked in on us, assisted us when we needed it, and celebrated every step of progress we made. My family's resolve is in many senses stronger now than it was before the fire, because we know that our neighbors literally and figuratively have our back should we ever stumble.

    As PTs and PTAs, we, too, offer patients and clients a support system that identifies their limitations and helps them get to where they ultimately want and need to go. We begin with systematic examination and evaluation to assess the patient's or client's entire situation. This evaluation encompasses all components of the disablement model in order to look at everything from the perspective of mobility. We then construct a plan of care that encompasses all the appropriate resources and needed personnel. Therapeutic interventions are identified and appropriate referrals are made. By these means, rebuilding can happen. Our passion to serve others, combined with our pride in our knowledge and skills, drives us and our patients forward to meet the goals they have set for themselves.

    Why be a physical therapy professional? What makes an exceptional PT or PTA? I believe it begins and ends with great passion for the human experience. The educational process is difficult and never-ending, but our passion propels us toward constant improvement. Every patient has his or her own story, with physical and emotional manifestations. Our passion fuels us to uncover that story, and to help each person rebuild from his or her losses through the lens of human movement. Our passion connects us indelibly to our communities, where, together, we celebrate victories small and large over impairment and injury.

    Our passion is heat—not the ravaging kind that destroyed my home, but the healing warmth of service and community.

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