Living with cerebral palsy meant physical therapy was absolutely necessary as a course of treatment to ease my spastic muscles and strengthen my weak legs. It was non-negotiable, injected into my narrative at a very young age, and has since remained to this day.
I’ve had many different types of physical therapists throughout the years. I’ve had ones that have made me laugh endlessly, encouraged me and championed me. I’ve had therapists whose tough love only showed how much they cared. I’ve been lucky enough to have physical therapists who’ve been very involved in my progress (the ups and the downs) and my recoveries. Though, it’s impossible to fully encapsulate everything that all my physical therapists have done for me the past 20 years, so I decided to pick out a few that have been especially memorable.
Out of all the physicals therapists who have treated me for the past 20 years, The Comedian is probably my absolute favorite. A fan of Halls cough drops and the Yankees, The Comedian (in true form to her name) always had me laughing.
I never liked physical therapy, having to be cooped up inside, stuck doing exercises while all the other kids were outside running through the sprinklers at the park. I think The Comedian knew this, so she was constantly cracking jokes. I appreciated it, because once in a while I would feel badly about myself, but The Comedian made up for that with her generosity and warmth. The Comedian would take me for bike rides around the neighborhood or scooter rides down the hallways. She even kept in touch with me outside of the one hour physical therapy sessions, taking me to see Elf when it came out in theaters all those years ago.
Back in 2011, after my most recent major surgery, I was sitting in my hospital room dressed in the plain hospital garb, and No-Nonsense walked in and said, “Let’s change you to regular clothes.”
“I don’t have any regular clothes.”
No-Nonsense walked to my closet, opened it and took out a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. “What’re these?”
“You’re changing into them. Right now.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but No-Nonsense’s attitude was exactly what I needed right after surgery. Moving around, they said, was very important for my healing. Which is what I needed to remember in circumstances like this one…
“Come on, it’s time for your therapy,” No-Nonsense said the next day, as I lay flat on my hospital bed, in pain and irritable. Apparently No-Nonsense had no time for hellos.
“I have to pee first,” I said, as I reached for a bedpan.
“OK, let’s walk to the bathroom.”
“Bedpans are gross. You can get infections.”
I don’t care.
“OK. OK fine.” I swung my legs off the bed and No-Nonsense helped me to stand. With a posterior walker, I began my journey to the bathroom. But since I had a cast over my left tibia and I couldn’t put any weight on it yet, I had to hop on one leg. Which is a lot harder to do than it sounds. When I finally made it to the bathroom, I was shaking and sweating. No-Nonsense expected nothing less.
When I met The Realist, it I had masked my vulnerability and was ready to begin working toward my goal: to be able to walk across the stage to get my diploma at High School Graduation.
Work comes with any goal. So, The Realist put me to work. And it was serious work. Leg press, bicycle, elliptical, stretching, and walking. Walking without crutches. And, as he was The Realist, he knew it wouldn’t happen unless I worked for it.
The Realist was there to push me to my limits and better me at the same time. He was there to tell me things like, “Don’t look at the floor, there’s no money there,” as I glanced to the floor in fear when I walked.
Once, he said, “I don’t believe in the saying, ‘No Pain No Gain,” if it hurts, it hurts. You don’t have to be the hero.”
And finally, a saying I’ll always remember:
I first met Chatty Kathy after cutting through all the ridiculous red tape that is the New York City public education system. In order to procure a physical therapist that would come see me at my high school, I had to go through IEP meetings, evaluations of all sorts, etc.
When I actually met Chatty Kathy, she was winded, out of breath and overwhelmed. When she finally stopped being overwhelmed, we started physical therapy. Although Chatty Kathy was really nice, she talked too much. A lot. A whole lot. I didn’t want to talk. I wanted to work. If I was ever going to achieve my goal of walking without crutches, I needed to get to work.
It ended up being extremely frustrating that Chatty Kathy wanted to, well, chat, while I wanted to do my exercises and get the hell out. I started to realize the inconvenience of having a PT in a high school with little resources. There was nowhere to hold the PT sessions, so we ended up doing my exercises in an empty classroom. Mind you, students could walk in at any moment, and at the time I was extremely self-conscious about my body being so weak and vulnerable. I mean I’ve always felt a touch of vulnerability, but the surgery made it so much more intense.
“I’m going to teach you things you can use for life,” she would say.
If Chatty Kathy taught me anything, it was knowing exactly what I didn’t want in a physical therapist. While Chatty Kathy had good intentions, it just wasn’t a right fit for me at the time. Sometimes you work brilliantly with your physical therapist, and sometimes you don’t. It’s all about knowing what you need, and knowing how you work best.
The Ally never said one absolute, ever changing statement that shifted my view on living life with cerebral palsy. Rather, brilliance rested in the smaller moments, where he would ask about my week at school and listen attentively to all my wacky stories about life as a college student. His support was unwavering, sometimes quiet, sometimes loud, but there all the same.
I’ve always thought that physical therapists were more than just “the collaborators.” It was always more than just getting from a means to an end. It was about healing, in more ways than one.