Feature First Choice for a Second Career Many PTAs began their work lives in other occupations but have found a home in physical therapy. The reasons are many. By Eric Ries | July 2017 One used to direct parks construction for a county government in Virginia. Another sold real estate in Florida for 20 years. A third was a longtime musician in Philadelphia. Others forged careers in marketing, web and graphic design, and the automotive field. Another spent 15 years as a stay-at-home parent in the Chicago area. Each returned to school as an older student to pursue a second career that seemed to hit a sweet spot—fulfilling, stimulating, and varied, yet educationally affordable and achievable within a compact timeframe. All of that, and in a "hot jobs" field, to boot, that shows no sign of cooling down anytime soon. These individuals, like many of their colleagues across the country, sought a new role in the workforce as a physical therapist assistant (PTA). All of them—ranging in age from 38 to 55 when they entered PTA school—relish their current role in the workforce and say they've had no second thoughts about their second career. Although the median age of the nation's 100,000-plus licensed PTAs1 was 37.6 in 2015,2 more than half—54.2%—of the nearly 1,100 PTA respondents to APTA's most recent demographic survey in 2009 were 40 or older.3 It's easy to see the appeal of the career switch from the standpoints of pay and job security, given a median hourly and annual wage of $27.21 and $56,610, respectively,4 and a forecast 41% growth in employment from 2014 to 2024.5 The cost of entering the profession is another selling point for individuals in career transition. According to the website Costhelper.com, the per-year expense of earning a 2-year associate's degree can be a little as $2,500 a year at a community college, with most programs costing $5,000 to $8,000. (Private colleges generally charge more.) But there's much more to the story than economics, says Jimmy Pacini, PTA, BSPTA, director of clinical education for the PTA program at the Institute of Technology (IOT) in Clovis, California. While he doesn't fit the older-age profile himself—he's 31—Pacini took classes with plenty of second-career PTA students at the College of the Sequoias a few years ago, and that demographic was well-represented in IOT's inaugural PTA class as it began this summer. "You have a lot of individuals coming into the field in this part of California from the military, from farming and industrial jobs, and after they've raised a family," notes Pacini, who also is his state's representative to the PTA Caucus. "The idea of becoming a PTA as a second career is appealing for a lot of different reasons. Yes, it's a relatively affordable and quicker route to a new career in the growing field of health care. And it's even quicker here: We offer 5 15-week semesters with just a week's break in between. So, our class starting this summer will graduate in December of next year." But beyond those practical benefits, Pacini adds, lie many intangible ones. "People looking for a career change may have felt stuck doing the same thing for many years," he observes. "In physical therapy, on the other hand, there are so many different practice settings and so many different patient populations you can help. Becoming a PTA is a way for workers who are older to do something for themselves, and also for society. It presents them with an opportunity to serve others, which is very fulfilling." Lisa Zemaitis, PTA, BS, attests to that. After a decade and a half as a stay-at-home parent, she returned to school at age 43. Now, 12 years later, she is a staff PTA and student coordinator at Centegra Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine in Crystal Lake, Illinois. She jokes that she's come full-circle—from president of the Parent Teacher Association, or PTA, at her children's school to a PTA in health care. "The second I entered PTA school I knew that it was meant to be," she says. "I still feel that way." Walter Latapie, PTA, BA, meanwhile, took his own circuitous route to his current position on the staff of Baton Rouge Physical Therapy-Lake in Denham Springs, Louisiana. "The way I put it is, ‘I used to fix cars. Now I help fix people,'" he says. Like Zemaitis, Latapie was 43 when he entered his PTA education program. "It was a tough journey, but I ended up exactly where I'm supposed to be," Latapie says. While the PTAs who spoke with PT in Motion may have started out with other vocations in mind, each say, like Zemaitis and Latapie, that they're happy with the career shift. These are their stories. Built for Success David Emerick Sr, PTA, BBA, who has been active in PTA governance for more than 20 years, is a familiar name to PTAs and physical therapists (PTs) alike. He was president of the National Assembly (a forerunner of the PTA Caucus) for 3 years, has been Virginia's representative to the PTA Caucus since 2000, and in 2013 received APTA's Outstanding Physical Therapist Assistant Award. The honor recognized him as a fierce and effective "advocate for the profession and physical therapists, both at the state level and nationally." Physical therapy, however, was not where Emerick started out to make a name for himself. It was clear at a young age that his interests lay in building things and managing projects—long before he would start helping patients build strength and manage impairments. "When I was 9 years old, we lived in an old house," he says. "I'd been watching some guys put down a concrete floor in our basement. At one point they took a nap, so I went over to the foreman and asked, ‘Hey, are those men supposed to be sleeping on my dad's job?' The foreman laughed and explained to me they really couldn't do anything until the concrete set. My dad told me a couple of years later that the foreman came over to him and said, ‘That boy will make foreman someday. He expects performance.'" The assessment was prophetic. Emerick's father was a small-town doctor, so the son followed a pre-med track in college, graduating with a degree in biology. But, given his lifelong interest in working with his hands, his prodigious organizational skills, and a flair for managing projects, Emerick instead, within a few years of graduation, was overseeing construction and design of new parks for Prince William County, Virginia. He later would own a marine construction company that operated primarily in the Chesapeake Bay area, with projects as far south as Florida. He was 40 when his wife, then a PTA student (and now a longtime PTA), requested his help on an exam. He'd need to come to her school and role-play being a patient. "The scenario was, I was in for rehab after a broken leg," Emerick says. "As I watched those students size me up and start problem-solving, I thought to myself, ‘This PTA track looks intriguing.'" He'd been mulling a career change anyway, after years of hard work serving as his own boss. And he'd always been deeply interested in the workings and complexities of the human body. "I'd been reading medical journals for years, just for my own edification," he notes. It took several years for Emerick's name to come up on the local PTA school's waiting list. By that time he'd retaken prerequisite courses in anatomy and physiology that he'd originally completed too long ago to be accepted by the PTA program. Within a year and a half of graduation and licensure as a PTA, Emerick was directing the therapy services department at a 400-bed hospital. After nearly a decade in that job, he decided he'd rather work directly with patients. He's been employed in home health for several years. "I really found my heart. I love what I'm doing and wouldn't change it for the world," the 66-year-old says. "I come home from work every day with a smile, knowing that I've helped people improve their quality of life. That's what motivates me." His previous career is an asset, though, when it comes to things like recommending accessibility and safety modifications to patients' homes. Construction always will be part of who Emerick is. "Right now I'm putting an addition on my sister's house," he notes. The peripatetic PTA also has carved out time to earn a bachelor's degree in business administration since entering the physical therapy field. He admits, "I can't be idle. I love working with patients during the week and building things on weekends. For me, it's the perfect mix." A Supporting Niche Gail Newsome, PTA, BBA, became a licensed PTA at an age when many other people in the workforce are beginning to plot their long game for retirement. Her health history was a big factor in her decision to enter PTA school at the age of 55. Now a PTA at PowerBack Rehabilitation, part of Genesis Healthcare, in San Antonio, Texas, she'd graduated from Baylor University in her 20s with a business degree, double-majoring in marketing and management. She subsequently ran her own marketing company for a quarter-century, primarily selling promotional products for companies and handling trade show logistics. In October 2004, Newsome was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. During that time, she attended a PT-led program on lymphedema management and was riveted by the presentation. "I was amazed to learn that touch could have such a positive effect on the lymphatic system," she recalls. It was then that she started thinking about physical therapy as a career. As she researched the profession, she gleaned that becoming a PTA would meet 2 important goals—not only would it be more affordable and quicker than would enrolling in a DPT program, but being under the direction and supervision of a PT would allow her to do meaningful work without having to be the person in charge. "I'd run my own business for a long time," she says. "I was tired of being the mom. I didn't want to be the boss anymore. And marketing was changing, moving into social media and web-based services. I'd have had to retrain anyway, so, why not apply that retraining toward helping to improve people's lives?" It took her a few years to implement her plan, but after she moved in 2011 to San Antonio from East Texas to care for her ailing parents, things began falling into place. A cousin provided her with a place to stay while she was selling her home, and she continued her marketing work for a time. That money and the proceeds from her house's sale enabled her to enroll in PTA school in fall 2012. Upon graduation and licensure 2 years later, Newsome did outpatient work on a contract basis. During that time her mother had a rehab stint at PowerBack. Newsome was impressed by the quality of care, and with the warmth and kindness staff showed her mother and her father, who came to visit daily. "I started thinking, ‘This is a nice place. Maybe I could do some PRN work here,'" Newsome says. When she inquired, she was offered a full-time job. She started at PowerBack 2 years ago. It's been an ideal fit, she says. "I don't want to be the physical therapist and write the plan of care, but I do want to help people," she explains. "I want a strong sense of camaraderie, with everyone working together on patients' behalf. And I want to be able to use my brain. This job checks off all those boxes." Newsome's parents have passed away, but both were late-life patients at Powerback. That is an important legacy for her. "I can talk to patients and their children and say, ‘This is what my family went through when my parents were here. We dealt with these same issues that you're facing.' It makes a difference that I can relate to them in that way," Newsome says. Also, with 2 years on the job and the experience of being the daughter of parents who had mobility issues, she's a resource for PTs who are fresh out of school. "I can read their plan of care and say, ‘You wrote that the patient should use a rolling walker. I'd advise transferring him to a cane, and here's why,'" Newsome says. The physical therapist makes the ultimate decision, but Newsome never wanted to be the boss. She enjoys "providing input, and being part of a team that's there to serve the patient," she says. Reasons, in Retrospect Baton Rouge's Walter Latapie says he was "born to do this job" at Baton Rouge Physical Therapy-Lake. Earlier in life, he'd attended Southeastern Louisiana University on a pole-vaulting scholarship and had played other sports, too. He'd encountered interventions he later would employ as a PTA, had learned a lot about proper exercise, and had gained insights into self-motivation that would come in handy with patients. But when he says, "It took me a while to figure out that this is what I was born to do," Latapie isn't kidding. He graduated from Southeastern Louisiana in 1993 with a bachelor's degree in business management but with no career plan whatsoever. When a friend with automotive expertise suggested they open an auto-repair shop, with Latapie providing the business brains and the friend providing the mechanic's brawn, it sounded to him like as good a plan as any. He knew nothing about fixing cars at the time, but he learned. After later managing a Goodyear store, he parlayed his skills with a wrench into an automotive technician position at a dealership. As he aged through his 30s, Latapie came to feel that there had to be more to work life than sweating through 6-day work weeks in 100-degree conditions. He explored his options and settled on a career in nursing because the pay was decent and jobs were abundant. While still working full-time at the auto dealership, he took as many as 3 of the required prerequisite classes at a time. Finally, at age 42, he entered nursing school. It was a disastrous experience for him. The pace was relentless, giving Latapie no time to deal with a personal tragedy that arose during that period. After taking only 3 classes, he succumbed to the pressure and dropped out. "I was devastated after quitting nursing school," he says. "I decided to try to pick up the pieces and go to a counselor to seek a new direction." He took a battery of aptitude and personality tests, which collectively pointed him toward physical therapy. He entered an accelerated PTA education program at age 43. He's 46 now and has been at Baton Rouge-Lake since 2014. "When people ask me about jobs, I always recommend becoming a PTA as an excellent first- or second-career choice," Latapie says. "I tell them that physical therapy is an extremely rewarding career. When I help a patient who's had a stroke to get stronger, stand up, and do things that he or she might've feared never being able do again, it's an amazing feeling," he says. "Every day I help people reclaim their lives. You can't beat that." Although it took him many years to figure things out professionally, if Latapie had it all to do over again, he says he wouldn't change a thing. Even his brief but painful stint in nursing school served a definite purpose, he notes. Knowing how to take blood pressure, and other skills he picked up in nursing school, gave him a "head start" on PTA school. Even more significantly, in nursing school he met the woman who became his wife. They're now expecting their first child. "Everything I've learned along the way, every struggle I've been through, has made me a better PTA than I would've been if I'd attended PTA school fresh out of high school, or even after college," Latapie says. From Realty to Rehab Late in her studies at the University of Maryland in the early 1980s, Angie Sawdy, PTA, BS, found herself loving the kinesiology and anatomy courses she was taking as part of her dance minor. "I said to my then-boyfriend, ‘You know, I really should have majored in sports medicine or physical therapy or something along those lines, because this is what really interests me," Sawdy recalls. The boyfriend, now her husband, was sympathetic, but his response reflected the couple's economic necessities at the time. "He told me, ‘Sorry, hon, but you need to go to work.'" So, she channeled her bachelor's degree in journalism and public relations into pursuits that would bring an immediate paycheck. The couple, scuba diving enthusiasts, moved to Key Largo, Florida, where the beaches were great but job options were limited. The communication skills reflected in her academic degree suited Sawdy perfectly to the Keys' evergreen industry—real estate. Both she and her husband plied that trade in the Sunshine State for the next 20 years—a decade each in the Keys and on Florida's west coast. "That took us up to about 2007," she says. "At that point we weren't making that great a living from real estate, and I was ready to do something else. I'd always been interested in exercise and fitness. I had a background in ballet and had studied yoga." Sawdy toyed with the idea of going back to school for an exercise-related degree, or becoming a certified yoga instructor. But she also remembered that statement she'd made many years earlier about physical therapy as a possible career. She called the PT program at Florida Gulf Coast University. "I remember the conversation so clearly," Sawdy says. "The woman told me, ‘If you come down here today, we can get you into the master's program, but we're moving to the doctorate.'" When Sawdy balked at the choice of either making an immediate decision or waiting for the next class and facing the time and tuition costs of an additional year of school, the Florida Gulf Coast official suggested she instead look into Broward College's PTA education program, which had an adjunct campus near Sawdy's home. She investigated and liked what she saw well enough to persuade her husband to delay their planned move to Colorado until she could complete her studies. She was 48 when she enrolled. Sawdy always had enjoyed learning and being in school, and she quickly took to her studies. But it was anything but easy. "I don't think many people outside of PTA circles understand how intense and grueling the PTA curriculum is," she says. "I'd always been a good student, but it was tough." After graduation, she had a couple of jobs in skilled nursing in Colorado. She remained in the setting when the couple returned to their native Maryland at the end of 2015. She's now employed at Fyzical Therapy and Balance Centers in Ocean Pines, on the state's Eastern Shore. "I love my patients," she says. "I very much enjoy working with people who are older. It's so neat when you see them getting stronger and functionally better—to where they can safely return home—and you know that you've facilitated that." Like other second-career PTAs, Sawdy feels that her past jobs and life experiences have served her well in her newer role. "Sometimes in real estate you have to tell people things they don't want to hear, but in a nice way—in a way that helps them understand the underlying issues," she notes. "That's definitely a skill that's transferrable to health care." Sawdy adds, "When I was in PTA school and feeling nervous about my age, my instructors told me I would be working with older patients at some point, and my age would be a selling point. They said patients will have more confidence in me from the start—they'll feel more comfortable and likely will be attentive—than they'd be with a younger PTA fresh out of school. "I do believe that's true," Sawdy says. No Idle Pledge When Lisa Zemaitis was 25, she saw a PT while recovering from rotator cuff surgery and was blown away by the care she received. "The rehab and recovery process took about a year, and the way the PT got me through it, both physically and emotionally, was incredible to me. I was so grateful, and I was awed by her expertise. During my last visit I told her, ‘I want your job! I don't know how I'm going to get there, but I'll find a way.'" At the time, Zemaitis was a cosmetologist, like her mother. Not only was it what she knew, but she couldn't afford costlier options in higher education when she graduated from high school. She'd always been physically active and interested in health and wellness, so physical therapy struck a responsive chord when she saw firsthand what a clinician could do. But a career change was not in the cards at that point in her life. Zemaitis subsequently married, had children, and settled into life as a stay-at-home parent. "I got very involved in their school—was PTA [Parent-Teacher Association] president, ran a running program that culminated in a 5K race." Fast-forward several years, and she was divorced and seeking a new career. During that period, she received physical therapy for a running injury. She discussed her career conundrum with the person who was working with her. "He suggested, ‘Why don't you become a PTA? That's what I am,'" Zemaitis recalls. She researched the occupation and determined that could see herself in that role. Within a few months, at age 43, she was enrolled in a PTA education program. Zematis had graduated, passed the licensing exam, and was several months into her first job—in early intervention at a school district—when she attended a Christmas party and saw a familiar face. "It was my physical therapist from my rotator cuff rehab," she says. "I said, ‘My gosh, how are you? I haven't seen you in 25 years!' She asked what I was doing now, and I responded, ‘You're not going to believe it. Do you remember our last conversation? I'm a PTA!" Zemaitis recalls the PT's reply: "Yes! I remember you saying that you wanted my job. You came mighty close!" The PT and the patient-turned-PTA shared a good laugh. She's found her passion in physical therapy—currently serving as Illinois's representative to the PTA Caucus, having earned a bachelor's degree in health care administration, and now studying toward a master's of business administration in health care management. She aspires either to direct a PTA education program or to serve as clinical director of a physical therapy facility. Her approach to education is the same as her approach to being the best PTA she can be. "I love seeing things to the finish line," Zemaitis says—whether that means overseeing a program or "sharing all of my skills with patients, offering them positive support, and helping to change their lives for the better." Drawn to the Light (Bulb) There was a time in the life of Chris Garland, PTA, BS, when getting an ad placed in Southern Living was a hallmark of professional success. Not that there's anything wrong with that—placement in a regional magazine is an achievement and a nice payday for any graphic designer—but it's hard for her to imagine now, when the stakes and rewards seem to her so much higher. "I feel as if I'm accomplishing so much more now when I see a person who I helped recover from shoulder injury reaching for something on the top shelf at the grocery store," says Garland, director of the physical therapy department at Cumberland County Hospital in Burkesville, Kentucky. (She still carries "nearly a full patient load" as a PTA at the small facility, she notes, in addition to her administrative duties.) Garland's second career is one she couldn't have foreseen, even though aptitude and personality tests she'd taken in high school suggested she'd be perfect for a health care role. "At that time, my window of knowledge about my options wasn't very wide," she says. "My feeling was, ‘I don't want to be a doctor or a nurse.'" In college, she earned a degree in elementary education, but she knew that was a mistake before she even graduated. "Let's just say that my student-teaching experience was negative, and that I discovered that teaching wasn't something to which my heart was called," Garland says. Instead, she gravitated into website and graphic design as computers became ubiquitous in the early 1990s. She got work, and a career direction was established. Not that she didn't have second thoughts. In the mid-1990s, Garland's mother tore both anterior cruciate ligaments during a family skiing vacation. Echoing the experiences of other second-career PTAs, Garland found the experience with physical therapy illuminating. "When my mother started physical therapy and I saw how much it helped her, a big light bulb went off in my head," she says. "I thought, ‘This is what I should've done in the first place.'" She nevertheless continued in her original line of work—until the floor collapsed under it. She was advertising manager at a newspaper in 2008, when, as Garland puts it, "the economy tanked, I was on commission, and nobody wanted to advertise." She thought back to that light bulb moment years earlier, did some research, and soon was enrolled in a PTA education program. She was 38. From day one, she knew she'd made the right choice. "When you're working on commission and dependent on that monetary reward, your focus is inward," Garland observes. "But in physical therapy it's the opposite. Physical therapy is all about acquiring skills and pushing those abilities outward, to the patient's benefit. It's so much more gratifying." With the help of a supportive husband and student loans, the couple economically survived the "very tight" school years. Garland's efforts were rewarded with the job she has now, in the same town where she'd sold newspaper ads. She's also active in APTA, serving as Kentucky's representative to the PTA Caucus. Although she might do things differently if given the chance to go back in time and revisit her career decisions, she notes that her job experience is a big asset at the hospital. "Fully understanding the power of customer service and testimonial advertising, and having experience building relationships that plant trust and encourage buy-in," Garland says, "are valuable skills to have as a PTA and department director—especially in a small town." Finding the Perfect Note It's fair to say that a career in physical therapy was not on the radar of Doug Slick, PTA, BM, "back in the day." "When I was in my 20s, I felt like I was living the high life," Slick says. "I was a professional musician—partying my brains out, having a great time." His music career had its roots in high school, when he was, by his description, "the star trombonist at a very small high school in rural western Pennsylvania"—what he calls a "big fish, small pond situation." Slick's fame, such as it was, was sufficient to suggest a pathway. "My plan, as much as an 18-year-old kid can have a plan, was to become a working musician. Not necessarily a star, but to make a living," he says. That was doable in the pre-Internet days of the mid-1970s, when live music was big. He headed east to Philadelphia, earned a bachelor's degree in music performance, and got started. "I created a network of people I knew—friends, classmates, teachers—made connections, and mostly freelanced in the early years," says Slick (which is his real name, by the way). "I was the hired help. I did studio work, played events, even did some touring with bands that needed a fill-in trombonist. I played with salsa, Dixieland jazz, swing, and contemporary dance bands. I did weddings and private parties. I toured England a couple of times with a disco group called Fat Larry's Band." Not that the paychecks were always fat, or consistent. Slick did "all kinds of oddball stuff" to help fill the gaps and make ends meet. He was a bike messenger for a time. He sold programs for a traveling Broadway show. Eventually he tired of all the scrambling and fashioned a new business model. For the next 15 years or so, he co-managed and played in a band named Swing Shift that booked "very lucrative gigs—weddings, bar mitzvahs, corporate Christmas parties—at country clubs and big hotels." Along the way, Slick got married. The couple had kids. He taught himself tuba and keyboards to expand his repertoire and marketability. He began giving music lessons. When his wife, a writer and editor, wanted to go back to work, he volunteered to play "Mr Mom"—which was not an easy gig, he emphasizes—and pushed his still-lucrative music engagements to the weekends. Around 2008, however, "the bottom fell out. When the economy goes south," Slick notes, "no one has to have a live band. "It's a total luxury. And anyway," he adds, "the handwriting was on the wall. By that time, DJs were well-entrenched, and iPods were taking over. All you need to do is program your iPod, and you've got your wedding music right there, you know?" Slick had entered his 50s. "I figured if I was going to retrain for a different career, I'd better hurry up and do it," he says. A trumpet player he knew who also was a PT hooked him up with a job as a physical therapy aide at Main Line Health, where the PT worked. Main Line, in turn, offered Slick tuition reimbursement to attend PTA classes, with the proviso that he'd continue working for them as a PTA upon graduation and certification. He's been a PTA at Main Line-owned Lankenau Medical Center for 6 years now. Slick is 60. "Getting out of music and into physical therapy was the quintessential blessing in disguise," he says. "I didn't realize how burned out I was on the business of music until I stopped doing it. Playing music is great, but trying to keep a band afloat is like running any business. It's grind-it-out exhausting." As a PTA, "I'm still providing people with a service, but, to me, it's much more vital," Slick says. "You're talking about people's health. What I can do to help them as a PTA is considerably more important than what songs I'm going to play at their wedding." Having taught music—primarily to children—for years, Slick came into his second career with insights about learning styles and motivational techniques that serve him well with patients. Teaching PTA students, he adds, may be on his horizon as he ages. But Slick never volunteers information about his past to patients. When they discover he was a professional musician, the news too often opens up "an unproductive rabbit hole" of conversation, he says. "People who play music for fun love to talk about it," Slick notes. "While I enjoyed playing music, too, it was my job. It was hard work. It seems difficult for people to understand that. I've put playing music behind me. I don't think of it the way that guys who get a gleam in their eye when they ‘play a little guitar' do." Slick is relishing the second set, so to speak, of his working career. "I leave the hospital every day feeling great," he says. "And when I get home, I listen to whatever kind of music I'm in the mood for. I don't have to focus on what's current, what's on the weekend set list, or the songs the bride wants the band to play." Eric Ries is the associate editor of PT in Motion.