It was 7 a.m. on a summer morning, with business as usual at Active Physical Therapy. My first patient was a new evaluation, which was always exciting to be able to help someone new. Katrina, our front office manager, approaches me and says, “So, your patient can not get up the curb to enter the clinic.” Right away, I knew I was in for a challenge, but little did I know how amazing and inspirational this journey was going to be for both my patient and myself.
I walked out to the car where I had the pleasure of meeting Jill. She recently had a below the knee amputation and was using a walker to get around, but never had to get up a curb. As I introduced myself, I strapped on a gait belt and before I had a chance to get to know her, we were already tackling our first challenge. Jill got out of the car and we made our way to the curb with her walker. Instead of going up forwards, I knew it was easier to get up going backwards. With much hesitation, we counted to three, and Jill pushed through her arms to jump up onto the curb. Before the evaluation began, we had already overcome the first of many obstacles. She made her way into the clinic where the rest of her story unfolded.
Jill was a teacher and had been teaching for over 20 years. She had a very supportive family, and a daughter who was a pretty outstanding high school volleyball player. Much of her time was dedicated to family, school, and her daughter’s volleyball. Jill spent much of her time caring for others that she sometimes neglected her own health. As her story unfolded, she stated she diabetes and one day she noticed a little wound on her lower leg. She didn’t think much of it, but when the wound did not heal, and progressively got worse, she ended up going to the hospital. The wound had got infected and they had no choice but to amputate her lower leg. Within a blink of an eye, her entire life changed.
As I listened to her story, I could tell she was still trying to get a hold of her new situation. It had shaken up her life and her entire families life. Despite the fear and anxiousness, I could tell Jill was different. She had this sense of resiliency and determination to get her life back that was absolutely incredible. As the evaluation continued, she stated she was going to get a prosthetic after her surgical limb healed. At the earliest, it was going to be 6 weeks, and we weren’t going to wait six weeks for her to start getting her life back.
Take a minute and picture your typical day, as you wake up and go down stairs for a cup of coffee and breakfast. You get dressed and drive to school or work. You walk from your car, up a curb, through the doors to your office or classroom, as you say hi to coworkers and classmates. Now imagine going about your typical day on one leg. How easy would it be for you to go about your day then? How confident would you be going up and down stairs on one leg? Would you be overwhelmed?
As I began empathizing with Jill’s situation, I felt overwhelmed for her. Dealing with an amputation takes as much of an emotional toll as it does physical. Working with her though, she was so determined to move forward instead of looking back on the past. She was always positive and ready to tackle the next challenge, as her attitude was inspiring. We worked on getting up from a chair, then a curb, and then worked on steps. Jill faced each challenge head-on, and with each successful obstacle, her personality began to shine. She was entering and exiting the clinic by herself without any help, but then came our biggest challenge, getting up from the ground.
Most people never want to think about falling and how to get up after a fall. I knew if we could confidently get up from the ground, it would be the final hurdle to overcoming her fears and getting her life back. I asked her to lie flat on the ground, and asked her how she would get up safely to a chair. I could tell there was much hesitation and fear. I had a doctoral student at the time, and another student intern who stood close by to hold the chair steady. As nervous and hesitant as Jill was, I knew she could do it. I gave very little instructions because I wanted her to overcome this obstacle on her own. With the chair to her back, she tried just pulling herself up and failed. She tried arising to a knee, but couldn’t. She was tired and frustrated, but didn’t give up hope. One more try. Jill faced the chair, this time using it to push herself up, and then using her leg to steady herself. She got up, and sat safely down on the chair. With tears of happiness rolling down her face, she did it.
Sometimes life knocks you down, and it’s cliché, but it truly is how you respond to it. Getting up from the ground was symbolic in more ways than one. Not only did she overcome her toughest obstacle, but that was the breakthrough she needed to get her life back.
After that, Jill did receive a prosthetic and with the help from her prosthetist, Steve, at Hangar, she was back to her normal self again. She was able to walk around without an assistive device, and started going to her daughter’s volleyball practices and games. She also returned to teaching and was embraced by her coworkers and students.
As her therapy was coming to an end, we had one last obstacle to tackle. She wanted to get back onto the ground with her prosthetic, but this time it was because she wanted to take a picture with the dolphin from “Dolphin Tale” as their family was heading to Florida for a much needed vacation. This time around, it was much easier, as we practiced getting to the ground and even reaching forward to simulate feeding the dolphins. Jill got back up onto her feet with her first attempt, this time with a smile on her face.
As a physical therapist, having the opportunity to work with people on a daily basis really helps put life in perspective. Watching the resiliency, strength, and determination in my patients is truly remarkable, and Jill was a perfect example of what that strength and resiliency can do for your recovery. She took her life back one obstacle at a time, and along the way, inspired myself as well as many others as well. Thank you for being you Jill!
Written by Dr. Kevin Do, PT
Read more about him here.