• Defining Moment

    There's a Word for What We Do

    It's made up, yet it's very real.

    Listen to 'Defining Moment'

    Author - Defining Moment

    In summer 1976, I had my first opportunity to study abroad, traveling to the Dominican Republic through the Student Project for Amity Among Nations (SPAN) program at the University of Minnesota. My plan was to study marine algae. I did, but I also learned much more that summer than I ever could have imagined.

    While I was conducting research, a friend of mine who was in the Peace Corps invited me to the community of Puerto Viejo to finish my project. I lived in a hut with no electricity or running water, and went out in rickety boats to learn about the town's nascent lobster cooperative. The boats leaked, there were no life jackets, and the potential for drowning was high. It was a memorable experience, to say the least!

    You can collect marine algae only so many hours a day, so I ended up teaching the community how to swim. I also had an opportunity to stay a few weeks longer than planned, so I served as interpreter for an incoming medical team whose members, unlike me, didn't speak Spanish. I asked patients about their personal stories, and I learned much more than a medical form could hold. At the end of one hot, dusty day, a community healer who had seen me interacting with patients told me that I, too, was a healer, because the questions I asked and my interest in the responses bespoke my understanding of healing as a complex phenomenon that lies at the intersection of mind, body, and spirit. Although I appreciated the compliment, I couldn't yet understand its significance.

    Before I returned to Minnesota that summer, my Peace Corps friend left me a poem. It read:

    I am not who I was.I am not going to be who I was going to be.You changed that.

    You are not who you were.You are not going to be who you were going to be.I changed that.

    We are not who we were.We are not going to be who we were going to be.We changed that.

    What is, is and cannot not be.What was, was and cannot not have been.So you see, my friends, we are us.

    Who are we going to be?We are going to be who we never could have been without each other.

    Many years later, I would realize that this poem—and my "healing" interactions in Puerto Viejo, as well as multiple subsequent experiences during the course of my physical therapy career—came together to define a word that was of my own creation. Let me explain.

    In 2009, when I again was in the Dominican Republic—this time as a PT on a service-learning trip with other faculty and students—I met up with a Latin American friend I'd worked with on several health initiatives. I hadn't seen her in about a year, so I asked how her family and community were doing. Or, rather, that's what I meant to ask her.

    Instead of inquiring about la familia (the family) and la communidad (the community), what I actually said was "¿Como 'ta tu comilia?" My friend and I looked at each other for a moment, paused, smiled, nodded, and acknowledged that my newly created hybrid word encompassed both family and community. It made sense to us!

    Giving that comingling a name is my defining moment as a PT. Comilia is that magical thing that happens when you engage a community with reciprocity. It means you've moved beyond being strangers, visitors, guests, helpers, or even friends and into the sacred space of deep caring.

    I volunteered in various locations in Haiti after that country's devastating earthquake in 2010. One of my patients, Wilfrid, had lost a leg, and he asked me if he ever could play soccer again. I told him that of course he could, using elbow crutches to enable him to kick the ball with his remaining foot. As it turned out, he did much more than that. Wilfrid became a prosthetic technician and role model.

    He also helped establish the Zaryen soccer team. Zaryen means "tarantula" in Creole. When a tarantula loses a leg, it does not stop—it continues to move forward. Wilfrid and Zaryen have traveled to the United States and beyond, offering clinics to inspire wounded US soldiers. They've even met the Pope! Seeing Wilfrid and Zaryen whenever I return to Haiti is a recurring defining moment that is best described by the word comilia. It's a spirit that's contagious, in a good way.

    At hospitals and clinics in Haiti, health care workers and officials from many countries come together to work for the common good. Egos tend to be checked at the door. The health disciplines collaborate to provide high-quality, patient-centered care despite a tangle of complicating regulations. I have many stories of patients who saw their possibilities for life restored after discovering what physical therapy could do for them. The looks on their faces are defining moments for me that illustrate the Haitian proverb Les pwa fe viv! It means "hope makes us live."

    Caring is something that is cocreated and negotiated in our interactions with others. It's, in a sense, a coordinated dance that energizes all participants. Comilia removes the distance between caring for someone and being cared for. It's a powerful connection. It's what PTs do, and it is radical work!

    Comilia happens every time I attend a conference and cross paths with my former students. I love learning about how each of them is living out the calling of physical therapy.

    Phenomenology is a philosophy and a qualitative research method that I use in my work. It seeks deeper understanding of what it means to be human by insightfully focusing on lived experiences. There's a body of literature suggesting that taking a phenomenological approach toward interacting with others helps us better understand their lived experience—effectively building comilia. The idea is that we become more open to the breadth and depth of others' experiences through the dialogue we create through phenomenological research—and that this makes us more open to better understanding the meanings we built around our own experiences.

    The close link between self-knowledge and understanding others influences the situations or actions we undertake as professionals. The principles of comilia connect closely to this linkage, and they reflect in many ways the core values of our profession.

    Throughout my career I've promoted lifelong, transformative community change through education—including self-education. Too often, when we facilitate the transformation of a patient or client we focus solely on the destination—that individual's improved state. We miss the ways in which we ourselves have been transformed by the journey.

    Our calling to physical therapy—as PTs and as physical therapist assistants—transcends the walls of classrooms and clinics. It reaches into our communities through engagement and social responsibility. It compels us to bring hope and love to others. It urges us to learn to see things differently. It holds the promise of defining moments, as we take the time to see things in a new light.

    Share Your Story

    Defining Moment spotlights a particular moment or incident that either led the writer to a career in physical therapy or confirmed why he or she became a PT or PTA. To submit your story or find out more, contact Eric Ries, associate editor, manuscripts, at ericries@apta.org.


    These experience have definitely deepen your understanding of people in need and the human condition. This is very important in an industry that focuses on both health and wellbeing. I'm excited to see what else you do with your talents.
    Posted by Kirsten Papp on 8/1/2017 7:58:23 AM
    Beautiful Sue!! I am not sure if you met Wilfred on the trip you and I met but I recall a young amputee who wanted to play soccer again and used lofstrand crutches! So wonderful to hear the success stories of patients! Continue the amazing work!
    Posted by Sharron Valentine on 8/2/2017 11:50:43 PM
    I whole heartedly agree with you!! The people we interact with in our lives are a gift. We each have the ability to change each other's lives!
    Posted by Mary Novotny RN on 8/3/2017 2:53:41 PM
    Wonderful encouraging words! Thank you for sharing! It is so meaningful to reflect on these priceless interactions and not overly focus on the "things" that we are doing. Thank you.
    Posted by Scarlett Morris on 8/9/2017 1:11:22 PM
    Sue, this is a powerful reflection on the transformation that can happen when we open ourselves to one another in care and service, I was made aware again of our Franciscan value of "Connecting with Joyful Service" here at BCU. We used the word "connecting" because it meant it is a mutual giving and receiving and we will be changed by those we serve, if we receive the gifts they give back to us in return....it is a mutual transformation process. I am grateful you are on that "journey" with us at BCU. We are gift to us and our students!
    Posted by Sr. Janet May on 8/16/2017 10:43:46 AM
    This was a inspiration for me
    Posted by Rebecca Sharon Kopuri on 10/26/2017 1:11:30 PM

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