• Defining Moment

    The Fix Was On

    A career was shaped by the desire to make things better.

    Listen to 'Defining Moment'

    I'm a problem solver by nature. I think I share that trait with a lot of my physical therapist (PT) colleagues. We want to fix things. We want to make things better. That's one reason we're drawn to physical therapy. That's ultimately why I was attracted to PT education.

    I've also always been a bit of a perfectionist. I think it came from my mother, whose motto seemed to be "Anything worth doing is worth doing right." I've carried that little voice with me all my life. Even though I often feel that I don't quite live up to that advice, pursuing it has produced in me a competitive streak and a need to strive for excellence. Whatever situation I encounter, my brain immediately jumps to "How can we do this better?"

    This drive has influenced everything in my life, including my defining moment in physical therapy: the moment I knew that I wanted to direct a PT education program.

    I tell my students that I went to PT school in the Dark Ages. That's an exaggeration, but I did graduate more than 30 years ago, with a bachelor's degree. I attended the University of Central Arkansas (UCA), whose program was particularly strong in neurologic physical therapy—the area in which I would practice for most of my clinical career.

    I loved my time as a PT student and felt bonded with my peers and the faculty. However, not everything was smooth sailing. It was a time of upheaval in UCA's PT program, and that tumult spilled over onto all of us. During those 19 months—believe it or not, that was the typical program length back in the Dark Ages—we had 3 different directors.

    Experiencing the negative impacts of that disruptive state of affairs set in motion my career goal. I distinctly remember sitting in class one day and thinking to myself—brimming with the naïve self-confidence of youth—"If I were the director of this program, I would do things much differently. And someday, I will be the director." In my mind, I'd skipped right over being a faculty member to being the program director! It's funny how simple and straightforward things can seem when you don't know what you don't know.

    After I graduated, I took my first job, at Arkansas Rehabilitation Institute, an inpatient facility, and got married 9 months later. Because my husband's career kept us in Arkansas, my focus remained local. I soon took a job with Conway Physical Therapy, where I worked in outpatient, inpatient acute, public schools, and long-term pediatric care facilities.

    It was during my time working in pediatric long-term care that I began learning how to teach. Part of my job was conducting training sessions with new direct-care staff about the physical therapy needs of clients at the facility. Also during that period, I got involved in a research project that resulted in my first publication, in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. Although I was the last listed coauthor of the piece, I was hooked! I didn't realize it at the time, but my experiences in pediatric long-term care were preparing me for the faculty role that I had catapulted myself past during my direct-to-department head daydream.

    I took the Gallup StrengthsFinder online talent assessment. It identified that I'm a Learner—someone who thrives on adding knowledge and continuously improving. Accordingly, about 3 years after graduating from PT school I began pursuing a master's degree in health services administration. I had learned a ton through my clinical work, but it wasn't enough. I needed another challenge.

    During my last year of graduate work I received a letter from Joe Finnell, who had been the founding director of UCA's PT education program. He asked me to apply for an open faculty position. I was stunned. Had Joe seen something in me as a student that convinced him to recruit me? Was he just desperate? Did he somehow know that I'd promised myself his old job years before, but that I'd need to get my foot in the door first? Whatever the answer, I was so excited!

    Thirty-plus years later, I still remember everything about the day that I interviewed for the position—what I wore, the presentation I gave (using an overhead projector, as one did in the Dark Ages), and all the other details, large and small. When I was offered the job, I accepted it without hesitation. I was where I wanted to be—on the faculty of the PT program at the school from which I'd graduated.

    Of course, I still was very far from having the skills to be a program director. That would take a lot more education, a great deal of professional growth, a considerable amount of experience, and much mentoring. Luckily, I've had (and continue to have) a number of amazingly talented colleagues who have shown me the ropes, walked alongside me, and guided me on my path.

    When I was a PT student, Jack Thomas (now at Medical University of South Carolina and a recipient of APTA's Dorothy Baethke-Eleanor J. Carlin Award for Excellence in Academic Teaching) taught our foundational science courses. He instilled in me a fascination for, and love of, neuroscience. This ultimately led me to complete a PhD in that area under Edgar Garcia-Rill, who taught me the fine points of how to write and conduct research.

    Venita Lovelace-Chandler, chair for many years of UCA's Physical Therapy Department, modeled a love for the profession and a passion for involvement in APTA that rubbed off on me in many ways. She got me involved in the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). She, along with Bill Bandy, dragged me (at least at first) to meetings of the Arkansas Physical Therapy Association and of APTA, and introduced me to their APTA colleagues. Those individuals included Barbara Sanders, who continues to be a wonderful mentor.

    The influence and example of these individuals and many others encouraged and energized me to become increasingly involved in the profession. And the more involved I got, the more I appreciated the opportunity to effect change that would benefit recipients of physical therapist services inside and beyond Arkansas.

    Today, I am—yes—the physical therapy program chair at UCA. I am blessed to work with a talented group of faculty, educating tomorrow's doctors of physical therapy at an institution that highly values and supports our efforts. (As it turned out, there no longer was a need to change everything by the time I took the job. But I take very seriously my role as part of a long continuum of improvement—as befits someone who's a Learner.)

    I've enjoyed serving APTA in a number of capacities over the years—from the Finance Committee to PT-PAC, CAPTE, the House of Delegates, and the board of the Academy of Physical Therapy Education. But my greatest joy, beyond my role at UCA, has been my involvement in the development of the American Council of Academic Physical Therapy and my service on its board of directors—where I get to work with some of the smartest and most talented people in the profession.

    Earlier this summer, I was humbled and honored to be inducted as a Catherine Worthingham Fellow of APTA, the association's highest honor. It just goes to show what can happen when you identify a problem as PT student, you're naïve enough to think that you can fix it, God places wonderful people in your life to encourage and guide you along the way, you work very hard, and you continuously strive for excellence.

    Nancy Berryman

    Nancy Berryman Reese, PT, PhD, FAPTA, chairs the Department of Physical Therapy at University of Central Arkansas and is a professor there  

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