I have been writing for eight years, but for the past twenty-five years I have worked as a physical therapist in a variety of settings. Writing is a love, but therapy has become a part of my very being. It is who I am. This week, a friend asked if I would recommend a career in physical therapy for her daughter. Initially I wasn’t sure what to say, then I attempted to explain to her some of the joys and the frustrations I face on a daily basis.
Today, I read an article that listed physical therapy as the thirteenth easiest job in America. The author of this article must have a far different definition of “easy” than I do. I decided to share some of what this physical therapist has done in her “easy” job over the past 25 years in response to that article and for my friend’s daughter.
I have worked with people from one month to 105 years old. I have worked in people’s homes, in hospitals, in offices, in nursing homes, in community settings. I have driven an hour, including stopping to move a fallen tree out of the road, to get to the home of a patient with no phone, to find she wasn’t home, then returned again a few days later with a smile on my face. I have worked with patients who were happy to see me and with those who were not.
I have been spit at, slapped, kicked, scratched, pinched, peed on, pooped on, puked on, had my hair pulled, and been cussed. I have been hugged, had cakes and cookies baked for me, been thanked. I have laughed with my patients, celebrated with my patients, and cried with them. I have remained calm and reassuring in situations where I wanted to panic. I have hidden my anger and frustration with a smile or a word of encouragement.
Some of my patients have had the courage to try when their chance of recovery was minimal. Some of my patients have had the greatest physical potential to improve yet weren’t willing to give even minimal effort, wanting me to “make them better.” Some of my patients have been skilled manipulators, wasting my time for their own benefit, time I could have spent with those who really needed me. I have given all the benefit of the doubt, giving them all my effort.
At the end of my “easy” day, I am physically exhausted, mentally exhausted, and often emotionally exhausted. My current job is in a long term care facility, and it involves much lifting, pushing, pulling. I am up and down all day, including on the floor at times. I walk on concrete floors all day. My feet hurt and my legs swell. My back and the rest of me often hurt as well.
I am a problem-solver, so I must be able to address a variety of issues that may arise, and my schedule changes many times a day, therefore it must remain flexible. I feel pressured to meet the documentation requirements of the government and to meet the productivity requirements of my employer. I must be mindful of numerous sets of rules and regulations at all times. I must balance the pressure to be more efficient with trying to ensure I still give my patients the quality of treatment they deserve.
Despite these physical and mental challenges, it is the emotional part that affects me the most. I see some patients 5 days a week, often for two to three months, then if they remain residents in my facility, maybe for years, but I am told I’m not supposed to get close to them. I have never succeeded in this. I see many of these residents more than I see my own family. I share in their lives because I work in their home. And I hurt when they hurt, I cry when they cry, and I grieve when they die. And they do die…too often. Some are ready, and that is okay. Some are not. At times, it is almost too much to bear.
But the other side to the emotional part is that some of my patients go home. Some return to their previous lives and I see them at the grocery store or walking their dog. Some come to me in pain and I am able to stop that pain. Some have nearly given up hope and I am able to restore that hope. This is what gets me through.
I work with a dedicated team of professionals–other therapists and nurses, housekeepers, kitchen staff and maintenance. We all work hard and face the emotional challenges of our workplace. We help each other to keep going.
If you still think physical therapy is the career for you, then congratulations. You may be destined to a life of joy and great reward helping others to achieve their goals. Understand though that it may not be as “easy” as some think.