I am a physical therapist (PT) on a spinal cord injury team at an acute rehabilitation facility. I started my professional life as an athletic trainer, so, naturally, I thought sports medicine would be my most likely career path as a PT. But it took less than one day in the acute rehabilitation setting to change my mind.
I was a second-year DPT student when I had my first experience working at an acute neurological rehabilitation center. I began my first day there unable to focus on anything, much less learn. The night before, I’d flown back to California from Texas. The week before, my oldest brother had died. I had spent the past week grieving with my family.
As I began that day I was mourning- unable to think, feel, or focus. By the end of it, however, I was looking far beyond my own sadness.
What happened? I was inspired that day by all the people going through major, life-altering events. Patients whose lives quite possibly never would be "normal" again. They, too, were grieving. But they also were motivated. Determined. Focused on achieving their goals. The PT I was following that day inspired me, too: her communication, motivational, and treatment skills were nothing short of spectacular.
I discovered my true career path and true passion that day. I learned that if all the people I’d just met could find a way to get up and continue on, despite the struggles and challenges facing them, so could I.
Every day, I work with people who have survived major neurological events. Each of them has a new complex, and unique blend of strengths, impairments, and medical, social, and psychological issues. In physical therapy school, my teachers said being a PT requires "lifelong learning." At the time, I thought that meant keeping up to date with research and taking continuing education courses. But I’ve come to realize that lifelong learning means much more. The most amazing aspect of being a PT is that every patient can teach you something new.
I still remember the first person I took from being so hypotonic that he needed help to sit at the edge of the bed, to being able to walk. Each session was challenging and exhausting, both physically and mentally. He needed constant cueing for attention and feedback. I have a picture of us in my living room to remind me not only of the joy of working with him and the treatment skills I developed, but of the lessons of perseverance and patience he taught me.
I remain friends with one of the first people I worked with, who had a C5-6 incomplete spinal cord injury. That experience drove home the idea that we need to look at the whole person when treating a patient. As a therapist, I played a role in achieving his rehabilitation goals- everything from regaining the ability to scratch his own nose to being able to stand and walk. As his friend, I’ve seen him deal with all of the things any young man must face-love, heartbreak, choosing a college major. I’m lucky to know him, and a better PT for the experience.
I work with patients with paraplegia and tetraplegia who fight each day to coax muscle return and struggle to sit, stand, and walk. Their tenacity reminds me that no matter what obstacles and struggles I encounter, I can find it in myself to keep going. Patients and their families have taught me to focus on the positive aspects of life and to appreciate even the smallest accomplishments.
I became a PT to make a difference and help people, but I had no idea how much being there during the most difficult times of patients’ lives would teach and help me. This is why I do what I do-because PTs help, support, teach, and learn.
Ramona Kneeland, DPT, graduated in August 2005 from the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at Samuel Merritt University.