• Defining Moment

    Passion Play

    Serving children in a fun environment.

    Listen to 'Defining Moment'

    I was drawn to the field of physical therapy in high school, when I injured my back. Until that point I'd never even heard of the profession. Once I was exposed to it, however, I was hooked, and I quickly changed my career goal from pediatrician to physical therapist (PT). I still wanted to work with children, however, in a way that would make their therapy engaging and fun. In fact, while I still was in college, I once doodled the word "play" scribbled in whimsical crayon colors. Today, it is my company's logo.

    I graduated with a master of physical therapy degree from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science—now the University of the Sciences—and began work as a pediatric PT. I enjoyed my new role from the start, finding it both satisfying and challenging. But it wasn't until a few years into my career that I truly realized the impact I could have.

    I was working with a toddler who was delayed in her gross motor skills. She was close to being able to walk, but she just would not do it on her own. Her mother and I were very frustrated. Then I somehow got the idea to take a dish towel and have this little girl hold onto one end while I held onto the other, with the towel being her only support. When I was a PT student I'd gotten a lot of instruction in physical therapy-related exercise, but I hadn't ever heard a therapeutic suggestion that fit this specific circumstance. To a great degree, being a pediatric PT requires you to tap your own creativity and think on your feet.

    Well, this little girl and I walked around the whole block while she held onto that dish towel. By the time we got back, she was walking completely on her own. At that moment I saw the full impact I could have on the lives of children and their families. This simple concept—using a dish towel as a physical therapy tool to spark a little girl's mobility—wasn't anything I'd been taught by a college professor or by any clinical instructor. Necessity had proven to be the mother of an invention that gave a little girl her independence.

    Her mother cried as her daughter walked on her own. I smiled—outwardly at my young patient's achievement and inwardly at the realization that I was making a difference, even though I still was a relatively new PT. I hadn't even needed to use expensive equipment. That success was the reminder and prod I needed in order to follow through on my dream. I'd put myself in position to achieve similar results for many more children, and to help other PTs do the same.

    At that moment, 27 years ago, I was ready to make my doodle a reality. I would open Theraplay. I envisioned it as a place where kids would maximize their potential in a fun environment—with toys everywhere, staff dressed casually, and the frequent sound of laughter. In my mind's eye, Theraplay would, as a newspaper story would describe it many "more closely resemble a daycare center than a medical facility."

    Now, in 2018, I daily witness my vision's fruition. Theraplay has grown continuously over the years. We have 10 pediatric outpatient centers, and we provide early intervention and school contracting services. We also have embarked on an aggressive growth strategy to spread our mission throughout the region. We've expanded school contracting through partnerships with companies in the town of Exton and the city of Pittsburgh. We've also partnered with companies in Pittsburgh and in northern Virginia that are local leaders in pediatric outpatient and early intervention services.

    Another big moment came in March 2017, when Philly.com named Theraplay 1 of the "Top Workplaces" and its special award winner for "meaningfulness." Now, you must understand that these awards are based solely on employees' surveys about their workplaces. This meant that Theraplay—the company I had started in 1991 with the goal of making a difference in people's lives—had been recognized as making a positive impact on the lives of both the children we serve and the staff who serve them. It meant that Theraplay has deep meaning to employees as a place to work, in terms of the services we provide and to the children we are privileged to treat. When I learned of this recognition, I felt that I needed to pinch myself. I still do. It's that rewarding.

    As PTs, every day we set goals for our patients, and, hopefully, we see those goals being achieved. As an individual and business owner, however, I am living—and surpassing—my career goal on a daily basis. Surviving in private practice these days is challenging, but having your employees name you a top company for which to work—specifically in the category of meaningfulness? I can't imagine a better defining moment in my career!

    Mackell, Lisa

    Lisa Mackell, PT, is president of Theraplay, a pediatric physical therapy practice with 10 locations in the Philadelphia area.

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