Physical Therapy and Life have a lot in common.
In my latest book project, I have a character who must undergo months of rehab. In my never ending quest to be accurate, I decided to visit the rehab department of my local care facility. The timing was just right. A friend was undergoing rehab at that time so I procured permission from her and the powers that be to spend a couple of days observing what is done in physical therapy. I got loads of information for my book. I also got more than I bargained for—a new perspective on life, physical therapy and those who must endure it.
Here are seven life lessons I learned from a physical therapy session.
1. Physical Therapy (PT) and Occupational Therapy (OT) celebrate the small steps the rest of us often take for granted. Things like walking further today than yesterday, swinging a leg into bed for the first time since hip surgery, and graduating from a one-pound weight to a two-pounder.
It wasn’t until I sprained my ankle last year that I realized just how much I flow through life without ever thinking about how I haul my carcass from one place to the next. As I got back on my feet, my brain had to do my walking for me. I had to think about not only every step, but each movement I made in positioning my foot to set it down.
Granted, I can’t spend my life with a magnifier in hand examining each and every motion I make. What impressed me in the PT room was the attitude of celebration over the small stuff. The rest of us? How big does something have to be before we get excited? On the other hand, how big does something have to be before we get annoyed? My guess is that we treat the little stuff like pebbles caught in our insoles. We get annoyed at the little stuff far sooner than we get excited about big things. Little things like a non-urgent phone call right when we’re starting supper, or two computer crashes in a morning’s work, or a deluge of rain just as we’re heading out for a walk. “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” a sign my father-in-law once owned said. “And it’s all small stuff.” What would my outlook be like if I treated life like a physical therapy person—if I celebrated even the smallest of accomplishments and refused to obsess over the bigger issues?
2. PTs and OTs play no favorites. During one morning session, a row of wheelchairs faced the occupational therapist. Some, like my friend, had hopes of full recovery. Others could probably see the end of their life from where they sat and had no hope of regaining their health. Yet others had been stuck in a sitting position for a long time. Some were sweet, wonderful people. Others grated on my nerves (I blush to admit it) after five minutes. Yet the OT treated them equally. She didn’t alienate anyone.
Some seniors tell me they fear the government is subtly refusing medical services to those over seventy as a cost-cutting measure. Jesus plays no favorites. He doesn’t base His services, benefits, and blessings on our age, gender, race, ability, or sweetness scale. The Gospel is for everyone: male and female, Greek and Jew, old and young. God’s grace is an equal opportunity employer. My acts of kindness should do the same.
3. Hang dignity and propriety about private space out the window. Therapists have to touch and rub muscles, pull down pants to look at incisions, and talk about body parts such as the not so polite term for our derriere. Physical therapists are willing to get up close and personal and do what it takes so their patients can reclaim the dignity of walking and caring for themselves. Grace is messy, one writer has said. Jesus calls us to get closer than arm’s length, to touch and hurt and sacrifice and yes, even to die so others might live. That’s what He did.
4. A partner eases the pain. Physical therapy is exhausting and painful. I heard my friend cry out and groan several times. I felt embarrassed for her, wondering if I was right to come. Yet she thanked me several times, saying just what I’ve said to you. It’s true. Pain is easier to bear when someone is bearing it with you. Maybe that’s why Paul told his readers to bear each other’s burdens. Burdens are lighter when they are shared.
5. Some griping is allowed. When one elderly lady apologized for her negativity, the OT quipped, “If people weren’t griping, I’d think something is wrong.” Griping shows that there’s something to gripe about. The beautiful workers in that facility created a safe haven where griping was allowed. They had the good sense to let the words go and move on. We need to make it safe to let people be real.
6. Progress, not perfection is the goal. As I watched a bean bag game, I realized that while it was cool to land the bean bag in the hole, a perfect score was not the goal. The patient was was moving muscles and retraining the sense of balance every time whether or not she made a hole in one. In a society fixated on grades, accomplishments and “The Best,” we need to remember that results and progress are happening even for those who don’t end up at the top of the heap. When we feel the let-down of an unreached goal, we have to ask ourselves, “What was the real goal? Did I reach that? Did I learn? Am I better than I was yesterday?”
7. Make it fun. As I prepared for my visit, I reviewed several youtube videos of physical therapy sessions. One PT explained how they weave physical therapy into play sessions for children. The child thinks he is playing when all kinds of strengthening, balancing, and centering is occurring. When the PT at my local facility set up a bean bag game, I asked a question my no-nonsense mother would have asked, “Now what’s the purpose of this?” I got a deserved ear full. Lots of good stuff. See above.
We laughed and giggled our way through the game and I learned to be more patient with my own aquatic aerobics instructor who in my previous state of mind, wasted time by having us toss balls to each other. I didn’t realize the play was accomplishing the same goals of balance strengthening as rote exercises. And, I have to admit, the ten older ladies in my class were having a ball. Oh, sorry for the pun.
So the next time you have a hard, painful or unpleasant task on your to-do list, make it fun and get someone to join you. Put waltz music on while you scrub floors. Have a Mr. Potato Head stare at you while you write that challenging next scene in your latest novel. Buy a set of two-pound weights in a lovely shade of violet.
Yes, Mary Poppins, a spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down, especially when it’s in the form of multi-colored sprinkles. Celebrate the small stuff, allow yourself and others to gripe once in a while but quickly sweep it away as you take the next step and do happy dances in your heart that you are better than you were the day before.