Unconventional ways I became a better physical therapist

Unconventional ways I became a better physical therapist

June 19, 2017, I walked into my first graduate program class to become a physical therapist (PT). Since then I have learned many unconventional ways to become a better physical therapist.

I recognized only two others in the class. I had just moved across the country to embark on this 3-year journey of becoming a licensed physical therapist and was very nervous. During orientation, there was one specific date highlighted: June 14, 2020. That was the day I would become a Doctor of Physical Therapy.

What happened during those years as a grad student is a story for another time, and it’s a juicy one. However, 2017 me had no idea that a world pandemic would rock the entire planet. I never even “graduated”. My class had no idea that the last time we would all be together in a room was in December 2019. It became a survival year, my clinicals kept getting cancelled and I, amongst many others, finished after June 14, 2020. It’s like my cohort all began on the same path together but then ended up finishing climbing a mountain on different unmarked paths and arrived at the summit at different times.

Finding a job at the end of 2020 was so difficult, it was a time when many people were losing jobs and people were stricken with fear to venture out to social places such as a physical therapy clinic for treatments. Not a high-demand market.

I had aspired to get into a residency program to train in either orthopedics or sports. I applied to about 7 or 8 programs. I received officially 2 interviews, 1 waitlisted me, down to 0 acceptances. I was crushed, humiliated, embarrassed, scared, deeply ashamed of myself. I did not feel like I was ready to be a practicing therapist, I had enormous amounts of imposter syndrome. This was NOT part of the plan. I was screwed.

After multiple attempts to get a first job, which was extremely exhausting and discouraging. A smaller business hired me. They promised I’d get mentorship and would help me as a new grad PT. The job then put me in the smaller of the 3 clinics and I found out I was the only PT there with one assistant (PTA) and one certified occupational therapist assistant (COTA). They were amazing to work with, but that meant I was essentially responsible for everything. If anything went wrong legally, my license was the one responsible for my assistance work. GULP.

I started treating  patients and was so stressed. I would hear people tell me their problems and my mind would go blank. It’s like I forgot everything I possibly did know, shouldn’t they talk to a professional about this, why were they telling me about their pain? I had guilt that I should not be the one to help them because someone else with more experience and training could help them better. I felt like such a fraud.

Over the next 1.5 years I worked at that clinic and transitioned into another PT business (they had more clinicians to learn from!). I struggled with burnout fast. Seeing so many patients an hour and managing all the other parts of work was exhausting. Not only did I have to figure out people’s problems, which most of the time, I didn’t know; I had to keep track of keeping physicians updated, checking in on patients who weren’t showing up, scheduling patients, figuring out billing per differing insurance plans, etc. I felt like a failure, “everyone else was fine” and I’m POOPED. I dreaded going to work.

I took some time away from working in a clinic for another 1.5 years and recently returned. Burnout and productivity demands are still very real and I continue to deal with that BUT clinically I am a far better clinician. What improved for me? It was NOT a residency or mentorship from a more experienced PT. It had nothing to do with physical therapy at all. It was all the self-development-soul-searching-journey I have been on. Instead of feeling like I must study and learn more about PT, I spent time working on my own health for my own brain and body. I mean holistically. I learned about my body and how to feel feelings for reallzzz not just verbally identifying them but somatically feeling them. I got clarity on my likes and dislikes and spent time doing things I liked. I planned bigger trips and spent time out in nature. I started a new hobby and consistently showed up for it. I spent time working on my sleep. I pivoted my focus on restoration and recovery over just grinding on. I also focused more on developing a safer and more secure relationship with myself- instead of blaming, shaming, and doubting. When it came to my fitness: I pursued learning from PT’s workout programs that focused on mobility, nervous system work, gentle consistency, and how to balance pushing a muscle group but incorporating recovery. I did not join boot camps. I modified workouts according to how I felt. Overall, my love for learning about the body, the brain, and the power each of us possesses to create in this life when there is harmony between the two, has been reawakened.

So, in the past 2.5 months in the clinic again I have noticed an uplevel of my clinical skills. When my patients tell me their problems, I have hypotheses and ideas of what to do to help them. What blows my mind is a few people have one evaluation with me and the next follow-up visit are already noticing progress and the aggravating symptoms are gone and they’re excited! This is WILD to me. I am also noticeably more creative at customizing and making up exercises for people. I thought some people were just “gifted” with the creative powers to make up an exercise and I was not one of them. When your body is regulated and stable, you will be more creative, it’s just a fact!

Of course, I am not tooting my own horn saying I am the greatest thing since sliced bread. I will be the first to admit I subconsciously chock it all up to “luck” and “coincidence” and still feel like a fraud. It’s funny, I did not want to write this piece because I am afraid someone is gonna ask for help with something and then I may not know the answer…. I hate the idea of letting you down! BUT I did write this because I want you to know that sometimes beating yourself over the head with more training, harder work, exhausting days, etc., is not the only strategy. It truly is important to focus on creating a safe, expansive, explorative, atmosphere in the walls of your skin.

I hired a life coach to help me manage everything and committed to myself that I would be a safe person for me to live with. Becoming a better clinician is just one of the fun side effects. I would love to help support you in your journey too, if this interests you, let’s connect here.

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