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I am a physical therapist working at a large metropolitan hospital. I’ve had my current job for two years, and I’ve worked as a physical therapist for a total of five years. I work full time, 40 hours weekly, with occasional overtime. I chose to get started in physical therapy because I love to move and be active. I wanted a way to channel my energy while also making a difference in the life of another person.
Working As A Physical Therapist
At my job, I help hospitalized patients restore as much function and movement as possible. Some of these patients have become permanently disabled and are just beginning a long journey towards coping with and finding ways around their new injuries.
Some patients are not permanently disabled, but have become weakened by long hospital stays (for instance, a month’s stint in the ICU will leave many unable to walk without physical therapy, due to muscle atrophy.) Because I work in a hospital, my patients are often very sick, and the work has to be tailored to their energy levels and current capabilities.
I love my job, and if given the choice, I would do this again. I rate my job satisfaction as a 9 out of 10. However, physical therapists have to endure quite a long haul.
You’re not going to see major changes in your patients overnight, especially if you choose to work in a hospital instead of an outpatient clinic. Some physical therapists can find the slow pace of progress a little frustrating, but to me there’s nothing more rewarding than having one of your old patients walk through the doors of your gym on their own two feet.
One of my proudest moments was when a previous patient, a young man who had lost a leg in a motorcycle accident, came into our waiting room pushing a cart of flowers and pizza for the staff all by himself. These are the kind of moments that are precious, and they’re worth every minute I spend with my patients.
Physical therapy is not all flowers and pizza, however. The biggest challenge I’ve faced is learning how to push my patients to meet their limits without exceeding them. Sometimes I have to push my patients to work harder than they think they can work.
Even healthy people have a hard time pushing themselves to workout daily. If you think getting motivated to visit the gym is hard, imagine you have to do it while recovering from a serious injury or illness! Finding the right balance between being sympathetic and being demanding has been difficult, and it’s never an exact science.
A physical therapy gym often has a very warm, friendly atmosphere to it. This helps reduce stress and makes me look forward to going to work in the morning. There’s a real sense of community among the patients and their physical therapists. You get to know everyone very well, and the patients encourage each other and update each other on their progress.
However, there are some significant sources of stress as well. Some people have a hard time understanding that learning how to become independently mobile again is a long process. I sometimes have very angry family members demanding to know why their relative “still can’t walk.”
One thing I’ve learned the hard way is that this job can be as hard on your muscles as it is on a patient’s muscles! Physical therapy does have a high rate of workplace injury, because we lift and move people all the time. I injured my rotator cuff on the job when I caught a patient who tripped, and ended up needing a little physical therapy myself.
I feel adequately compensated for my job. The average salary is around $70,000 a year, and many physical therapists (myself included) get great benefits. I usually get around 2-3 weeks paid vacation a year. Another perk is that we are very much in demand! The population of the United States is becoming increasingly elderly, which means that more physical therapists will be needed in the future to help people suffering from age-related illnesses and injuries.
However, physical therapy recently changed from requiring a master’s degree to requiring completion of a doctoral program, the Doctor of Physical Therapy. This is not as daunting as it sounds, as it only increased training from two years to three or four (depending on the program), but it’s still something to consider.
If someone was considering physical therapy as their career choice, my advice would be to shadow a physical therapist for a few days and see what their job is like. You can call hospitals or physical therapy clinics and ask for an opportunity to shadow. It’s a good idea to shadow a range of physical therapists (inpatient, outpatient, and at-home) to get a feel for what the different jobs entail.
The single most important thing I’ve learned from my job is patience. The good things in life don’t come easy, but if you work hard, they will happen!
Career choice physical therapist image from Shutterstock