Describe to us your most memorable physical therapy moment.
“As a therapist, I could not have been more green.
My diploma had not yet found its way into a frame and my license, while conferred, had not yet been printed. It was the first morning at a new job and the first day of a new chapter in my life.
Walking into the clinic at 7:45 a.m., I was greeted with a barrage of hugs, handshakes and smiles. They were a warm and inviting group. I felt welcome and at home, almost instantly. As I enjoyed meeting everyone, I was also full of nervous energy. I was itching to get to work and begin learning how I would fit into the team. I didn’t have anything to worry about. Even though I was not scheduled to see patients that day, I doubt a minute went by where I wasn’t being instructed in one clinic procedure or another or discussing the ins and outs of patient care from the perspective of my new team.
It seemed every task, for every position had been scrutinized and a specific plan had been formulated for it’s completion. From the layout of the schedule, to the precise way linens were folded, to the manner in which patients were greeted upon entering and leaving the clinic, each had a standard operating procedure that I needed to learn and follow. That is how the morning went, watching, listening, learning and trying to absorb as much as I could.
Just after lunch I caught a bit of a reprieve from the chaotic pace of the morning. I was observing the clinic manager during an initial evaluation. It felt good to move away from the policies and procedures and step into the role, albeit in a limited fashion, of a therapist.
Finally, I was getting to the real reason I was here, to treat patients. While a good portion of the eval went the way I would have expected, something stood out to me.
It seemed, Gary, the treating therapist, was asking a lot of questions and taking up a decent amount of time, that didn’t have anything to do with why the patient was in the clinic that day. He asked about the patient’s spouse, if they had children, what he did for work and similar, getting to know you, questions. It must have been several minutes before he started asking about the history behind the patient’s injury and subsequently how they arrived in therapy.
Afterwards, Gary took me aside to ask me how I thought it went. When I gave him my observations on the conversation, he smiled and said “It’s great that you noticed.” He then told me that how he approached the conversation and that much like everything else I had been learning that day, it had thought and purpose behind it.
He let me know that when speaking to patients, it would be expected that I would only talk twentyfive percent of the time and that the patients should be talking during the lion’s share of the exchange.
We went on to discuss strategies for keeping the patients talking, as well as postural cues for me to avoid that might make it look as if I was unintersted. Such as slouching, resting on my hands or arm or not making eye contact. After a quick chat, I filed that info away, along with the one or two hundred other things I was supposed to remember and soldiered on with the rest of the day.
In the days and weeks following, I did my best to learn and perfect everything that I was being taught, while at the same time, I was struggling, as many new practitioners do, with things like confidence and time management. The lesson about only talking twentyfive percent of the time was tucked in there among the rest, but I didn’t pay too much attention to it. Or enough attention to it, it turned out. I found that it was actually a little difficult for me. It seems, I was a bit of a talker. While I would listen, I was always quick to interject my own thoughts or experiences about whatever subject was at hand. I found myself having to pull back and restrain the urge to share my own experiences. It was a struggle for me to keep my mouth shut!
That was before I met a very special patient.
Let’s refer to her as Mrs. Cassano. Vincy, she liked to be called. It was short for Vicensa. Though, I wouldn’t learn that for a couple of weeks. Mrs. Cassano was in pain. A lot of pain. All the time. Headaches, sometimes migraines, always with wrenching neck pain that radiated into her back and shoulders. Occasionally, diffuse aches in her arms and low back.
I did everything I knew how to do and I failed, miserably.
Stretching, joint mobs, modalities, massage, myofascial release, nothing was working. She came faithfully, three times a week and I wasn’t helping her a bit. On her fifth visit, or possibly her sixth, I found myself working on her cervical spine and wondering what else I could try. As we sat and talked, I realized I was doing it again. I was dominating the conversation. I forced myself to pull back and I began asking more questions. What did she do before she retired? “I was a flight attendant when we were still called stewardesses.” She smiled.
She smiled! It hit me like a truck. I had never seen her smile before. This wasn’t a polite smile that comes with a greeting or after a mildly amusing joke, but a real, eye lifting, cheek stretching smile. “What was that like?” I asked excitedly.
That one question was all it took.
I listened intently for the rest of her session as she told me about all of the things she loved about her job. The travel was wonderful, but it was the people that she loved. Meeting people from all over the country and later in her career, from all over the world. That was her true joy.
Mrs. Cassano gave me a second shock that day. Sitting her up, I asked her to turn her head and let me look at her range of motion. “It feels better, today!” She exclaimed, smiling again. I was floored. If I wasn’t already sitting down, I might have fallen over.
“That’s fantastic, Mrs. Cassano!” I said.
Getting to her feet, she took my right hand with both of hers. “Vincy,” she said, “my family calls me Vincy.”
This, I was beginning to understand, was the goal all along.
Not just to limit how much I was talking, but to listen, truly listen.To listen with the intent of hearing, not only exactly what the other person is saying, but what they are not saying and more importantly, what they are feeling. I needed to listen to Vincy, to give her the gift of my time and attention and to give up my desire or need to be heard. Validating her thoughts and feelings helped to make Vincy feel better about herself and her life. It made her feel better emotionally and physically and consequently made her feel better about me.
Learning to listen and subsequently, getting to know Vincy genuinely, is far and away, the most memorable, profound and important day of my life as a therapist.”