Why amputee?

I had the chance to have coffee with an acquaintance last week (and let me just stop here and say that Buddy Brew coffee in Hyde Park makes the best iced cappuccinos!)—Stephanie has been heavily involved and dedicated to the amputee community for several years and is a wealth of knowledge and a fantastic resource! The first thing she asked me when I sat down and told her my plans to open up shop for amputees was “Why amputees?” Great question……

One of the many things I love about my profession is that there is a vast variety of practice settings for us—-physical therapists can specialize in orthopedics, cardiac rehab, neuro rehab, spinal cord injury, medical/surgical rehab, women’s health, burns, amputee……the list goes on and on! Basically, there is a niche for everyone in the profession.

In grad school, I was determined that I was going to be a pediatric PT working with children who had cerebral palsy, spina bifida, neonates…….oh boy, did God have other plans for me…..

I was very fortunate at the beginning of my career to be employed by Jackson Memorial Hospital—the county hospital of Miami, Florida. It was like being thrown to the wolves and I loved it—-as a rookie, I was required to rotate to a new specialty every 6 months so at the end of five years, I had seen and been exposed to (yes, exposed) more diagnoses than many PT’s see in their entire careers. The hospital had its many challenges as it served the entire community (the majority of which did not have insurance). The hours were very long, and many a time I would walk into a patient room not knowing what surprises I would find (trust me, that’s a blog all on its own!). The physical therapists I worked with were, to this date, some of the most talented clinicians I have ever met—-they demanded those around them to be on the top of their game and they themselves worked even harder to set the example. Paul, Richard, Curtis, Taime, Kadeemah, Lynette, Sharon, just to name a few…..in each rotation, I was blessed to have folks who were not only experts in their field, but amazing mentors who were always able to guide and teach those coming up in the ranks.

The first specialty that grabbed me and had my attention was actually the trauma burn unit! The team (MD, RN, PT/OT, psych, social worker) was phenomenal and the patients even more so. I never went home so physically and emotionally exhausted as when I was on that rotation, but I also felt I was starting to reach my potential as a PT. Then the worst happened, rotation time came up and as per hospital policy, I could not take on the burn rotation a second time in a row (this was done to give younger PT’s a chance to do the rotation). Even worse, I got the rotation that was last one everyone’s list—-outpatient amputee. Folks, no one wanted this rotation—-it was everyone’s last choice for rotation including mine. And I certainly didn’t remember squat about my amputee training from grad school and was very nervous about this particular fact.

My first day on the rotation and my supervising PT, Curtis Clark, said to me, “I don’t expect you to remember what you learned in school as that was a brief overview—I am here to teach you and help you with your patients until you are confident in taking on your caseload solo.” Curtis then spent the next three days giving me a solid orientation on everything I needed to start seeing amputee patients and to this day, is always willing to lend me an ear when I have particularly challenging case.

I have to brag a bit about Curtis Clark—-he literally wrote the book on amputee rehab. He also mentored Bob Gailey who is the current Macdaddy of amputee world. Curtis is one the most humble and caring PT’s I have ever met. His love for helping the amputee population is evident within minutes of talking to him and he passes that enthusiasm to those he teaches. After a couple of months of getting the hang of things in the amputee clinic, I was hooked. It also helped that I had very challenging patients come through the door (that even Curtis was impressed with!) that made me use every strategy and tactic I had learned as a therapist—not to mention all the new tricks I learned afterwards!

You see with amputees, you not only are treating the impairments caused by a missing limb, oftentimes you are simultaneously treating the effects of fractures, torn tendons/muscles, skin grafts, traumatic brain injuries, etc—-all of these other complications that happen when these patients were in the accidents that caused the amputation. Those amputations caused by non-traumatic events such as diabetes or peripheral vascular disease also carried their set of challenges. All of my experiences with my patients in all the other rotations came to fruition with amputees.

Every PT with 10 years or more experience will confidently tell you that they can work with a variety of different patients, but that they have a “knack” for certain populations. Amputee was (and still is) my “knack.” Academically, it is a great kinesiology problem that I enjoyed solving and each patient presents with their own unique puzzle. Emotionally….I get to help people learn to walk again for the first time! To this day, I feel such a sense of pride and joy when I see my patients take their first steps by themselves outside the parallel bars after months of trauma, recovery, and hard work. As a one year cancer survivor, I can truly appreciate the fight these patients have to display in order to get their lives back—-I know what it’s like to have one’s world turned upside down from one moment to the next and to go that uphill struggle and not give up. It is an honor as a clinician to be a part of their journey.

So while I didn’t become the pediatric PT as I had originally planned (God gave me 4 kiddos of my own instead)—-I have followed a winding 15 year path that has landed right where I want to be….stay tuned for next week’s “Out On A Limb: Do you dare to bare?”