My life was perfect. Really! Just perfect.
I am a hard-working person and I was able to achieve everything I ever wanted by the time I was 35 years old. I had a career I loved, taking care of others with intellectual disabilities, fighting for their quality of life and their rights to thrive in our society. I had friends and family who are just so kind and funny and full of life. I had just bought a nice little house. I was the proud owner of that house and its yard; a yard in which I could plant vegetables for my son to eat. Because if I say my life was perfect… it is because he exists. Because all of those things only meant something as they related to him – my son.
My life was perfect. And then it got turned upside down.
A car accident. And just like that… I am paraplegic. With all the challenges it brings on…
My life was perfect and then I had to learn to make sense of it all – all over again. From helper to helpee… I was the one fighting and caring for my clients, and now, I was the one relying on others, on health professionals. I met nurses and PABs that did their work with such care of others – it was just beautiful. For a paraplegic, I needed to go beyond their care. I needed to work hard to regain as much function as I could. I started working out with a physiotherapist. The only place I felt I had some sort of control (the control to work as hard as I wanted and had decided) was the gym. This is where I met the best “physio-terrorist.”
Three key moments in my work with him led to 13 lessons for all physiotherapists / physical therapists to know!
Story 1: The 101 pull-ups
I am ready to work on my arm and shoulder muscles. My goal: 30 pull-ups – non-stop! My physio is there encouraging me. Counting with me. I am doing my exercises with a smile on, counting along with him.
As we get close to 30, he announces that he wants 10 more. I tell him off (literally!) and say “no problem” as I count to 40.
As we get close to 40, he says I look way to refreshed to stop shy of 50. I make a few jokes (swear at him mostly…) and we continue on to 50.
Close to 50 he says “you are still smiling, and still talking to me… you are going to 70!” I start to grunt as I cannot really speak anymore and continue on to 70, as per his directives.
Another 10 more for good luck brings us to 80, which is way too close to 100 to stop there, so he says. By that point, I cannot speak any longer. I am concentrating and counting (in my head) the numbers that lead me to 100.
Finally, as I get to that epic number… my physio says: “one more – just because” and I finish with 101 pull-ups under my belt!
Story 2: Fostering Hope
I am paraplegic, ASIA A complete, T2-T4.
One day I come up to him and with conviction I say: “I think I have regained muscle control on the left side of my body. I can feel my muscles contract.”
He knows. This is not the first time a patient comes up to him with a similar statement. He also knows – this is not the first time I come up to him with a similar conviction. As a professional, he is fully aware of his impact on my mental health and drive.
He could have said “there is no way,” “ASIA A complete,” “it is all in your head,” but all he said was “let’s test it!”
Story 3: I can! But sometimes, I just can’t!
To work on my back muscles, he has “prescribed” some side exercises. From a position where I lie on my back, I am asked to turn on my side only using my arms, pulling myself with an imaginary rope. A student is guiding me, offering some resistance to make me work harder. I don’t mind working hard. Heck… I actually like and expect to work hard in physio. But this time around, it is just not working. It’s just plain impossible for me to make any progress. I can’t make it. The student is there, encouraging me slightly, but making it way too hard for me to succeed. For the first time, I get discouraged.
My physio saves the day… He comes over and demonstrates how things need to be made challenging but not impossible.
Here are my 13 lessons, learned from him, for how to be an amazing physiotherapist.
1. We are people, not just injuries.
2. Speak to us all the time. I need to know you have my back. But I have no sensation in my back. So if you are there and don’t say so, I don’t feel it. It is like you are not there.
3. Tell us what you want, how you want it, why and how many repetitions! We need to understand why something is important and how to make it work. When I know the purpose an exercise has and how that exercise will have an impact on my functionality, I will work harder. Working hard is to my benefit!
4. Be confident in what you do, even when we are not. Practice. Plan ahead. Do what you need to do so when you manipulate my limbs, it is done fearlessly. And remember: I don’t bite!
5. Tell me, show me, correct me — otherwise I have no idea what you want me to do.
6. Make sure we live successes. If we have difficulties, don’t let us struggle. Modify the exercise or find something else!
7. If I don’t get it, don’t assume it is my fault. Maybe you are not explaining it right.
8. Congratulate us every minute. If we work hard, you should too! I’ll work my muscles, you work your vocal cords.
9. Make us laugh! ‘cause we often want to cry!
10. Read us so you will know when to push and how to push us even harder.
11. Get to know us. We will work harder for someone who connects with us.
12. Learn our language. We may grunt when we work hard, scream when we work harder, and shut up when we can’t work any longer.
13. Remember, your job contributes to making us strong to regain our dignity. So foster hope and do everything in your power to make us achieve our goals, and we will do our part!