• Defining Moment

    It's a Hit

    Two children strike powerful blows—and confirm a student's career path.

    Listen to 'Defining Moment'

    There's a quote that perfectly encapsulates why I'm studying to become a physical therapist clinician and researcher and can't wait to begin my career: "The difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a person's determination."

    That comes from Tommy Lasorda, the longtime manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers and a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He wasn't speaking specifically of sports, but his background ties in nicely with the story I'm about to tell, which culminated on a softball field.

    Experiential learning and community engagement and service are important aspects of the doctor of physical therapy program at my school. My research mentor on the faculty is Leann Kerr, PT, DPT, DHS, a clinician scientist who, on March 6, 2018, introduced me to 2 extraordinary children in our pediatric service learning clinic. Chris was 10 and Jenna was 9. Both have cerebral palsy and have been engaged in rehabilitation services for their entire lives. As pre-teens, they had reached the point in their lives that socialization and inclusion were very important to them. They were eager to do "normal" things like attend sleepovers, hang out at the pool, and participate in sports. They had amazing family support, but they needed our help, too, to achieve those goals.

    With Leann's guidance and oversight, a classmate and I developed a gait and strength-training training program and invited Chris and Jenna to participate in it. But they did much more. They took personal responsibility to do well. As they gained strength and endurance they set a specific goal: Both of them wanted to learn to hit a baseball or softball. That desire, in and of itself, taught me an important lesson: Never see a person for his or her disability, and never regard that disability as a problem to be fixed. Rather, always see an individual for his or her abilities and potential.

    We decided to add the goal of hitting a softball into our efforts to improve Chris's and Jenna's gait. The beauty of that plan was that neither child had any idea the 2 things were related. When we started working with them on swinging a bat, they considered it a fun break from physical therapy. In reality, though, we were trying to engage their muscles in a new movement pattern that, ideally, would create beneficial co-contractions, produce faster timing, enhance coordination, and foster a more efficient gait pattern.

    Jenna got the hang of things pretty quickly and soon was asking for her protective harness to be removed so that she could challenge herself even more. During one particular session something extraordinary happened. Leann looked at Jenna and said, "I'm going to ask you to do something that might make you fall, but I know that you can do it. Elizabeth and I are strong, and we'll be right here to make sure you don't get hurt. Do you trust me?"

    Jenna nodded. Wide-eyed, with a look of dogged determination on her face, she tackled something that I never would have imagined happening in week 4 of our protocol: She took 2 independent steps after swinging the heavy softball bat! I was in awe, thinking about how much strength, control, and coordination the sequence had taken. Jenna beamed. I knew in that moment that I'd found my calling in life—to help people navigate the path to achieving their potential.

    Chris's road was more difficult. He was very frustrated. He understood what we were asking him to do, and he was telling his body to do it, but he just couldn't achieve the desired results. He couldn't understand why his arms and legs weren't listening to his brain. And I couldn't do anything to instantaneously fix things. He was upset. I felt heartbroken.

    The biggest issue was that Chris couldn't fully straighten his elbows when he swung the bat. After what felt like a million times of me saying "Arms straight!" Chris looked me in the eye and quietly said, "Elizabeth?"

    "Yes?" I replied.

    "Why can't you just leave me the way God made me?" he asked. "He gave me these arms and legs that can't straighten. Why can't you just leave them that way?"

    Chills ran up and down my spine as I looked at him and saw past his struggles, to his abilities. "I can't leave things that way," I said, "because you are capable of much more than you know."

    We kept at it. In both Chris's and Jenna's case, the more we worked together, the farther they came out of their shell. They arrived for each session full of energy, invariably reporting that they'd tried or achieved something since last time that they'd never attempted before. Chris described how he'd put on his pants by himself for the first time, and how he'd been practicing softball at home with his family. Jenna's mom sent us videos of her trying to walk with only 1 crutch, or hitting a softball in the backyard with her father. The degree of engagement that the gait and strength training program had fostered outside of our therapy sessions was astonishing.

    On September 30—less than 7 months after I first met Chris and Jenna—it became clear that I'd had the privilege of participating in something truly remarkable. We organized a softball game to showcase the kids' newfound talents—enlisting help from the wider university and community, and involving members of the softball team, volunteers, and others. Both Chris and Jenna hit the ball, ran the bases, and scored runs, as fans in the bleachers cheered. Chris and Jenna were so happy! We'd helped improve not only their physical abilities but also their quality of life.

    Every experience I've had with these 2 children has shaped who I plan to become as a clinician and researcher. I've seen firsthand how a strong foundation of traditional physical therapy provides an excellent platform to achieve specific goals that get to the heart of who kids with challenges really are—and how they don't want to be defined.

    Thankfully, Chris and Jenna are continuing to participate in clinical research at my school. I continue to feel blessed, meanwhile, by the opportunity they and their families have given me to see the incredible difference that physical therapy can make in people's lives—as well as the importance of creating and building a solid body of evidence.

    I'm looking forward to following in Leann's footsteps as a clinician scientist—and to helping patients see that anything is possible when determination is in play.

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