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Thursday, January 13, 2005

Why I love stroke patients

If you ask a physical therapy student where they will work after graduation, nine times out of ten they will quickly reply "Sports Medicine." I fell into that category at one time. There's something about the elite athlete that owes their success partly to the therapist that pushed him that intrigued me. Plus, and girls, you can understand this, what's wrong with with being one of the few women around a bunch of jocks? Yea, like shooting fish in a barrel.

But the day I met Mr. Smith*, my plans went out the window. He sat in a wheelchair, slumped to the right and drooling from the corner of his mouth. His stroke had left him with only two words for communication: Thank you and Goddamn. Being a devout Baptist, this embarressed his wife immensely. During our treatment sessions, other patients would hear the following exchange.

Tish: Let's stand up, Mr. Smith.
Mr. Smith: Goddamn.
Tish: Put your right hand on the mat.
Mr. Smith: Thank you.
Tish: Do you want a drink of water?
Mr. Smith: Goddamn.

You get the point. Eventually he learned new and more appropriate words, but I like to think of Thank you and Goddamn as our special code. Maybe I was channelling one of those Indians from the war that deciphered the Navajo code, but I knew what most if not all Goddamns and Thank you's really meant.

The most special moment for us, though, was the first time he walked out of the parallel bars. Twenty feet with a rolling walker and I was hooked. The tears of joy streaming down his face as well his wife's broke free my own which isn't supposed to happen for the health care professional. My philosophy with the whole patient/therapist relationship is that if you genuinely care and are involved with them, the patient can only get better because of it. It will cost you emotionally, but what in this world doesn't?

"Goddamn, thank you. Goddamn, okay?" Mr. Smith hugged me on his last day, again tears running down his face. He had progressed from five feet in the parallel bars and moderate assistance to walking with a rolling walker up to 200 feet indoors and outdoors with stand by assistance. His wife hugged me, too, calling me an angel. I've been called lots of things starting with the letter A, but not an angel.

Since Mr. Smith, I've treated over 300 stroke patients in the past eleven years. Every one of them is special, every one of them has taught me something new. And every one of them has cussed me like Mr. Smith, some on purpose. Perks of the job, I guess.

*Named changed, of course.


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