• Defining Moment

    Life (as a PT) Begins at 40

    A second career fulfills a first love.

    Listen to 'Defining Moment'

    I'll never forget a woman I met during my acute care internship when I was in school to become a physical therapist (PT). She'd sustained a spinal cord injury from a fracture of her T7 vertebra secondary to undiagnosed metastatic breast cancer. Her courage, determination, positivity, and perseverance never wavered. She worked incredibly hard and refused to give up. Within a couple of weeks she'd made it from the acute floor to acute rehab. Three weeks later, she returned home to her family.

    She still was in a wheelchair and battling cancer, but she was determined to walk again, and I believe that she eventually will achieve that goal. She thanked me for my role in her journey toward recovery, but she deserved all the thanks. She inspired me every day, affirming why I'd returned to school decades after postponing my dream of becoming a PT.

    The word “postpone” is key. I never quite gave up on that dream. But neither did I have great hope, as time went on, that it ever would happen. The truth is, if anyone had told me 22 years ago that late last year—at age 40 and with 3 sons in college, I'd earn my doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree, I likely would not have believed it. Throw in the facts that I've now got a great job in acute care, and that all of my kids are working toward becoming PTs themselves, and I'd have been amazed and gratified by our roles in repaying a profession that has given my family so much over the years.

    Let's start at the beginning—my high school graduation. I already wanted to become a PT. I'd won a college scholarship and was ready to embark on that path. Life, however, had other plans for me. I fell in love, and my husband Eric and I soon started a family. I gave birth to Cody, Alex, and Kyle in quick succession, and I chose to stay at home with them until they'd all started school.

    Next, I entered the workforce. My first career was in retail. It had its rewards, but the hours were long. I was an assistant store manager for many years, and spent a great deal of time away from home. I missed far too many of my sons' activities. I longed for a career with a better work-life balance.

    At the same time, I was constantly reminded of physical therapy's ability to empower people and transform their lives. Over the years, I watched as my grandparents, parents, spouse, and all 3 of my boys required the skills of PTs for various reasons—adhesive capsulitis, rehabilitation of the anterior cruciate ligament, deconditioning due to congestive heart failure, concussion, foot injuries, and low back pain. In each case, I marveled at the PT's ability to establish a collaborative relationship and use his or her skills to help my family member accomplish personal goals and achieve a better quality of life.

    One night in fall 2011, I was working the closing shift at a store and had missed yet another chance to be a cheering mom at a soccer game. For years I'd mulled the idea of returning to school. That night, I decided that the time was now. We had a family discussion about what it would mean to all of us if I were to leave my job and pursue my DPT. Two days later I resigned my position.

    I was accepted to St Ambrose University. I earned a bachelor's degree in exercise science, and then, a year and a half later, my DPT. The course load was difficult. Between school and home responsibilities, my energy was drained. Some days I felt very much like an “old lady” in comparison with my much-younger classmates. I didn't simply persevere, though. I loved every minute of it. I was pursuing my first love, career-wise, and that felt great. Also, I was learning—and modeling for my sons—some very valuable life lessons. For example, you're never too old to chase your dreams, and as long as you're willing to put in the work, you can change your life in profound ways.

    As proud as I am of myself, I'm ever more so of my sons. Cody, who receives his undergraduate degree this month and will enter St Ambrose's DPT program this fall, wants to work with children with special needs. Alex, soon to complete his undergraduate studies at St Ambrose, also will enter the school's DPT program this fall. He plans to work in outpatient orthopedics. Kyle, a college freshman, aspires to become a pediatric PT.

    I never pushed any of them toward physical therapy, but I always encouraged them to pursue their passion—whatever path they felt would bring them happiness and fulfillment. I probably shouldn't be surprised, then, that all 3 of them, at least for now, have set their sights on a profession that promises great rewards for both patients and practitioners. Whatever they end up doing, I know that service to others is in their DNA. That deeply gratifies me.

    As for me, talk about rewards! I love coming to work every day—meeting new people, facing new challenges, and helping patients tap their inner reserves to overcome setbacks and achieve personal goals. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing the look of astonishment on a patient's face when he or she realizes that a seemingly unachievable task wasn't impossible after all. My patients inspire and motivate me to keep learning and growing—not only as a PT but also as a person.

    As far back as my teenage years, I thought it would be great to be a PT. It took me a long time to turn that ambition into a reality. But I've come to discover something that I'd dared not hope during all those years that my dream was deferred. I've found that being a PT is even better than I'd imagined it could be.

    I recall the woman who inspired me so much when I was in PT school, and I think to myself, what a tremendous privilege it is to partner with patients as they make their journeys of self-discovery and reclamation.

    Defining Moment

    Heather Birely, PT, DPT, is an acute care PT at Genesis Medical Center East in Davenport, Iowa.  


    Congrats Heather! Welcome to the party!!
    Posted by John on 5/1/2018 6:20:33 AM
    Congratulations Heather, enjoyed your story!
    Posted by Jonathan Sutter -> ?LPZAH on 6/6/2018 8:07:09 PM
    Hi Heather, I will be 41 yes old and I have not ever gone to college. I would like to pursue PT but scared because of my age. I was able to relate to your story and indeed admire your capacity of chasing your dream! I too have 3 kids but It seems impossible to keep up with house work,work and family time . I need your help....any suggestions or feed back is appreciated. Xoxo Marcela
    Posted by Marcela on 1/2/2019 12:22:39 AM
    Marcela, Thank you for your kind words. Going back to school with a husband, kids and job was like a juggling act. Time management was they key to success along with the support of my family. Chasing my dreams was one of the best things I’ve done in my life. I love going to work everyday and seeing the difference in the lives of the people I work with. My family and I also learned some very valuable lessons along the way. If you’d like to talk about this I’d be more than happy to visit with you anytime, in a more private setting than comments that post here that others may have access to. Again thank you for your kind words and remember your never to old to chase your dreams. Life happens the way it does for a reason. Heather
    Posted by Heather on 1/10/2019 9:10:23 PM
    Marcela, I can connect you and Heather via email if you'd care to write to me at ericries@apta.org. Because I don't know your last name, I can't look up your contact information in APTA's member database. Heather understandably doesn't wish to post her email address here in the comments section for anyone to see,
    Posted by Eric Ries -> @FQcAJ on 1/18/2019 12:06:01 PM
    I’m a current non-traditonal PT student. I was working as correctional officer when the PT lightbulb went off in my head. I was 32 when I got accepted into my program and now I am halfway through my second year of school! I was super insecure because of my age at first. Now, I feel like an academic rockstar. I want older students to know that our maturity level is what will carry us through the journey to PT. So don't be afraid. Take the leap! It’s so worth it!
    Posted by Elise on 1/24/2019 5:16:03 PM
    It is an inspiration for me. Thank you mama. May God bless you more and more.
    Posted by Iqrafaooq on 3/14/2019 8:37:53 AM
    Congratulations Heather!!! This is such an amazing story. I often hear about people becoming PT's the traditional way, but never as a second career and as a mature woman with kids. I am 40 and looking to pursue a career as a PT. While I am determined I am unsure of what to expect since i have three children. I have a child that will be a senior, one in middle, and one in elementary school. Hence my concern. Are their any suggestions?
    Posted by LaToya Tellis on 5/11/2019 8:26:09 PM

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