The Unexpected Physical Therapist

TavelPhotoMy name is Rachel, and I am not your typical Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) student. I’m 32, a published travel writer, and I didn’t take a single science course as an undergraduate (note: you need 10 pre-med courses to even apply to DPT programs). Deciding to become a physical therapist was a 7-year-long decision for me that involved soul-searching around the world, multiple injuries of my own, and a healthy dose of disappointment (and disenchantment) with other “dream” pursuits. Now, I am weeks away from completing the 3-year doctorate degree at NYU. But how did I get here? It’s been quite the trip…

I was always interested in healthcare, but I knew medical school never felt like the perfect fit. During my first week of college, I attended a meeting for students who were interested in pursuing medicine. In that meeting, I learned about all the science courses I would need to take, and that being an athlete (I was planning to row) or studying abroad (I planned to spend a semester in Spain) would be very difficult.

I went to a small liberal arts college because I was an explorer; I was eager to pursue whatever interests I had, whether I wanted to learn about Buddhism and art, or even samurai culture and philosophy (which I pursued in the form of an independent study my junior year). I took one look at the course catalog and one look at the pre-med requirements, and made a decision right then and there: I would follow my curiosity, not a preset list of required courses, and see where my own interests might lead me. I walked out of that pre-med meeting and, consequently, away from healthcare, and didn’t look back… at least not for several years.

At the time, I didn’t know PT existed. I discovered the field by accident during my senior year of college when I injured my back after slipping on a frosty dock before crew practice one morning while carrying a large rowing shell overhead. I had to miss my final season of racing with my team and go to weekly PT sessions instead. By then, I was weeks away from graduating with a major in Spanish and a minor in archaeology. As I received treatment for my back, I began to realize that I loved going to my PT sessions and learning how to isolate, strengthen and stretch all these muscles I never knew I had. PT felt very medical, but with a specialized, personal touch. I wanted to understand my body and my injury. I wanted to learn how to fix it. The more I learned, the more intrigued I became.

I began researching the field of physical therapy. When I realized how many science courses were required to apply to DPT programs, I felt totally shut down. The list of pre-requisites included: Biology I and II, Chemistry I and II, Physics I and II, Anatomy and Physiology I and II, Statistics, Developmental Psychology, and an English course – which, believe it or not, I hadn’t taken either. As I looked at the list, I felt totally overwhelmed. Had I done this college thing all wrong? I assumed it was too late, and continued to pursue my other interests.

I had another dream job at the time: travel writing. Little did I know, this unconventional dream job would fall right into my lap, just when I needed it. For much of my early- to mid-twenties, I traveled the world – often solo – with pen and paper and wanderlust beyond what could be contained in any office job in NYC. I was propelled by heartbreak and energized by an insatiable sense of adventure – an electric energy that was kept alive by the endless beauty of every exotic place I got to see. But as I took in all the magic of the world around me, I couldn’t extinguish the little flame that still burned for a career in healthcare.

When you travel as much as I did, you learn how to re-route when things don’t go according to plan. Accepting a life as a traveler is accepting this fact. (For better or for worse, I learned this lesson many times over.) It took a bunch of hits, and more than enough doubts for me to realize that this “dream job” I had elected may not have been a dream job after all. As I grew up and my twenty-something birthdays dwindled, travel writing became an unsatisfying mask and frustrating distraction from the life I really wanted for the next several decades. After living with a parasite for four months while living in Ecuador, and too many other frustrations to count, I was officially adventured-out. What began to excite me more than traveling was science, healthcare, working with people, and having some skill I could offer that would improve other people’s lives.

Suddenly, it all became crystal clear. The publishing industry was beginning to fizzle and die, and I sensed desperation and fear of the future in a lot of my coworkers. I didn’t want to live like that! I was 27, full of curiosity for another field, and I felt like I was on a sinking ship; if I was ever going to leave publishing to pursue a job in healthcare, the time was now (or never). Motivated by a surge of excitement that I had suppressed for almost a decade, I quit my job as a staff writer and editor for a travel guidebook in Quito, Ecuador, and moved back to NYC to figure out if I could somehow make this complete career-change work.

As much as I loved writing, a deep-seated desire to help others remained unsatisfied. Through injuries of my own and my increasing desire to understand how the human body works, my interest in becoming a physical therapist was continuously confirmed. I bought myself 2 GRE books, re-taught myself basic algebra and geometry, took the GREs and applied to post-baccalaureate pre-med programs within a month of landing. Luckily, I was given the chance to pursue dream job #2. That was 2010. I have been in school ever since.

Going back to school and, with it, giving up life savings, a salary, a lot of pride, and the freedom I had so deeply cherished during my twenties has been, hands-down, the hardest, most humbling, and most challenging pursuit I have ever taken on. It has shaken me to my core, forced me to make so many sacrifices I never thought I’d have to make, and taught me so much about myself and what I want out of life.

Becoming a PT student has taken grit. It’s required discipline to a degree I didn’t know I had in me, but I have never been more excited about this career. I want to make a difference in people’s lives. I want to empower others, no matter what their physical limitations. I want to give strength to people when they’ve been knocked down. I have been the patient, I have been the wanderer, I have been the one who gets hurt. Now, I want to be the healer – the one who can help.

Becoming a physical therapist is about trusting and appreciating the human body, all that it is capable of, and the places it may take you. But it is also about respecting the healing process, and realizing that controlling our bodies and being controlled by them is a constant balancing act.

Grad school has been challenging – really challenging. I could write a whole book about how and why it’s been hard. But most of us would be nowhere if we let a challenge stop us. Returning to school has been the longest flight I’ve ever been on (five years!), but the traveler in me knows that sometimes the longest flights lead to the most beautiful places.

After such a long and wild journey, it’s hard to believe that I’m finally preparing for landing. There is so much I can’t wait to do when I arrive.

SusanThe Unexpected Physical Therapist

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