Part 1: From stuffed animals to screaming parents

During the first year of my career, I stood in a corner while being yelled at by an angry father who wanted to know when his injured child was going to play baseball again.

Despite the steam rising from my reddening cheeks, I calmly reassured this parent. Beneath the anger, he was undoubtedly stressed about his kid’s health and sport. I told him that his child was in good hands and we were working to get him back in the game as quickly as possible. It wasn’t until later that my colleague Jill gave me a high five for my Oscar-winning performance. Only she could tell that beneath my calm demeanor, I was panicked that this father was going to fire little old me, the new graduate who couldn’t possibly know anything about baseball.

It’s during these moments–and believe me, I’ve had more than my fair share–that I reflect on my own injury history as a competitive swimmer. It began early in my teenage years and continued into college swimming and adulthood with even more problems. Each injury or problem has brought stress, doubt, anger, grief and frustration. It’s hard enough to be a patient going through it and miss out on what you love. Add on a parent or loved one, and that multiplies the challenge.

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Every athlete faces disappointment at some point. Being injured can be more disappointing than not winning. That’s me on the left at age 12 getting 7th place in a race.

This is the stuff that drives me. Yell at me? No problem! I’ll take it with grace and a smile on my face. In the end, I may “win” this battle, but the good news is, we all are winners at that point.

Parents aren’t the only ones who challenge the method to my madness on a daily basis. I often hear phrases from colleagues like “I could never work with kids. They’re so hard to understand,” or “It’s not the kids, it’s the parents who are the tough part-you get two patients for the price of one!” or “How do you even know how to talk to kids?” Ok, I’ll admit it. It’s no cakewalk. To me, the thrill of the challenge behind the success in working with kids far outweighs the frustration of juggling each child, teen or family member’s individualized needs.

The story of how I ended up in this field may be compelling to nobody but me, although my colleague Dan Dale decided to publish this article about it in APTA Perspectives magazine, May 2013 issue. I like to believe that in retrospect, it makes sense that I’m as inspired as I am.  But I’m not on TV and I don’t have a pet monkey with cymbals to get your attention so I’ll resort to the next best thing: a blog!

My parents will tell you that I was the kid who craved the toy doctor kit. I told everyone I was going to be a doctor. I had the healthiest stuffed animals in the world because they had their blood pressure taken regularly.  Usually I don’t back down from my goals, and even at age 5, I like to think I foresaw the future.

I am now a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT). Dr. Julie for short. I am a sports physical therapist with a special interest in pediatric and adolescent orthopaedics and sports medicine. Looking back on my PT “upbringing,” it’s a little ironic to see where I am given my first exposure to the practice was a juxtaposition with how I work these days.

I first experienced PT at age 15 when I injured my back during swim drylands while landing the perfect 3-foot vertical box jump. Sticking a landing on a feat like this is admirable if you’re aiming for Olympic gymnastics.  However, I’m not sure it’s the most functional exercise for swimmers whose only jumping involves a headfirst leap off a platform into water.  My perfect-10 performance did not get me to the Olympics, but it did earn me a ticket to the neighborhood PT clinic. It was there that I recall always being put into a quiet room where some teenager rubbed gel on my back with a warm metal probe. Then I laid on the table and did a bunch of exercises while nobody watched. Then the same teenager came in and strapped electrodes to my back and made me lay with them on an ice pack for 20 minutes. I’m pretty sure that teenager was my classmate in Spanish class. At the time, that was PT to me. I didn’t know any different.

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Photo credit: someecards.com

It didn’t take me long to realize that it was not, in fact, PT.  Eight years later in a classroom at Emory University, I would learn that the warm metal probe (therapeutic ultrasound) should not be used over the spine and generally not in adolescents under age 16 without medical clearance. I also learned that teenagers could not lawfully perform these treatments in Georgia. Hmmmm…

Looking back, I kind of wish my own angry parent would have backed my nonexistent PT into a corner and yelled at him. Or perhaps it was a her. Honestly, I can’t remember. That’s how great of an impression he or she left on me.

To add insult to injury, that back pain never really went away.  Then there was the shoulder surgery, months of PT, and decision to end my swimming career at Duke University.  During and after graduate school, I had more PT for continued shoulder pain, back pain, and all the other “pains” that came along with being a busy professional student-turned-professional clinician.  And yes, you guessed it, I’m still in PT. One would think that at some point I’d get sick of it.  But I just figured I’m already there, I might as well get paid to do it.

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This is Blair: my therapist, mentor, friend, colleague and boss. She continues to inspire me to be a better therapist, and most importantly, a better nerd. She even inspired me to dress up like this, get up at 3 AM and cheer her on as she ran a half marathon. Now that’s influence, folks.

Somewhere along the way, through all of my own PT and PT education, I realized what real PT is. I learned that being a rock star physical therapist involves taking the same drive that I put into my own life and applying it to patient care.  It’s striving to be at the top of the profession, exercising an insatiable curiosity for the “why” behind the things we do.  I only wish I’d known at 15 what I know now. Where is my flux capacitor when I need it?

Real PT includes teaching, learning, coaching, mentoring, cheerleading, researching, parenting, teamworking, being totally hands-on, and making a few friends along the way. What it’s not is putting a kid into a room to be isolated away from other kids and patients, to perform nonspecific exercises, have contraindicated modalities performed by an unlicensed professional, and be totally unsupervised by a licensed physical therapist.  That, in my book, is not noteworthy.

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Photo credit: someecards.com

Since age 15, I have fortunately had a few notable therapists and mentors along the way who set the record straight for me on what this whole PT thing is about. I have been fortunate to transition from student, mentee and patient to now working alongside them as a colleague.  Along the way each of them instilled in me a small sense of “I want to be just like them when I grow up!” And despite the frustrations of injury after injury, their influence has inspired me to give back to athletes just like myself.

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At the 2013 APTA Combined Sections Meeting, I ran into my friend Rosie and former physical therapist from Duke, Kerry. Turns out we all passed our board certification in sports physical therapy at the same time. Full circle.

One thought on “Part 1: From stuffed animals to screaming parents

  1. Pingback: youthsportspt | The Road to TED Talk-ing

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