Becoming The Patient
I thought if I ignored it long enough, it would go away. It didn’t.
One week after walking out the doors of the small hospital I’d served for seven years as a speech therapist, I walked back through them as a patient.
I knew the radiology staff there from performing several hundred swallow tests for my patients, so I was comfortable with them.
After the testing, I knew I had made a good choice to get the MRI there. And soon thereafter, I would confirm that I had made another good choice to get physical therapy there.
I guess you could say I was in denial that anything was wrong. I guess you could say, that as a runner for 31 years, I was naïve to believe my knees would continue to run pain-free forever.
Now, after running nearly every day for over three decades, I haven’t been running for six weeks. I switched to walking, but even that hurt my left knee. I have reduced my level of activity to almost nothing until further notice from the medical professionals I have worked closely with in the rehabilitation setting, waiting not for them to finish with my patient so I can do my therapy, but instead waiting for them to deliver their magic formula to me as a patient, not as a co-worker.
As an avid runner for more than half of my life, I am feeling a deep sense of loss. I have, perhaps, gotten only a very small taste of what my patients get when their diagnosis involves long-term disability, perhaps permanent. A stroke, head injury, brain tumor, progressive neurological illness such as Parkinson’s disease, or any other of the myriad diagnoses that can cause disruptive and life-altering communication and swallow problems are the diagnoses I have seen in my 27- year career, and they never stop breaking my heart. But I always got to walk out the door and go home, and get up and run the next morning. I tried my best to offer gratitude every day for this ability, knowing from my work experience it could be taken away.
And now, it has been, at least temporarily.
The long, menacing tunnel of the MRI machine stared at me through the tech’s window when I arrived for my test. This one-eyed monster was something I had never been up-close and personal with, having seen it only on TV. I swallowed hard and changed into the soft cloth outfit (without any metal, of course) Susan, the tech, handed me to change into.
The loud grinding, clicking and pounding noises greeted me rhythmically when I entered the room behind Susan’s desk, which served as Command Central. I didn’t have any desire to visit this foreign country before today, but here I was, at its border, not speaking or understanding the language. Yet, I knew this visit was inevitable if I wanted to get my knee back in the game of life.
Susan, in her kind, gentle and empathetic ways, coached and encouraged me every step of the way. She got me positioned on the slab, propping my knee up so it could smile big for the camera. She let me know that I would hear many other loud noises as the magnets did their job creating a highly-detailed image of the internal workings of my knee. I was offered my choice of music to be piped in to my ears through the headphones she would also speak to me through, continuing to inform, instruct and encourage me as the test progressed.
The 70’s music I chose did help, but it was no match for the sounds that the machine produced, even when the headphones were on 100% volume, as I had requested for them to be.
I try not to wish time away, because I know it is precious. However, I wanted so badly for “about 35 minutes” to pass rapidly. I was past the point of no return; I knew, much like childbirth, there was really no way out. I knew the moment of truth would soon follow, and I would have to face the music with the test results. Susan was the angel I needed at that moment, but I felt alone and scared, and even though I am a 55-year-old grown woman, and she has been gone for 13 years, I wanted my mom.
I hung on his every professional word. I had worked with him as my supervisor and fellow therapist for those seven years, but now he was my treating physical therapist, and I was his patient. After reviewing the MRI results that confirmed a strained ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) with fluid and swelling present, and performing a manual assessment of my knee, he delivered the music to my ears: Everything is intact, you will very likely have a full recovery. His words as my supervisor had never carried as much weight as these words as my physical therapist did; hearing his pronouncement filled me with hope and answered my prayers. I knew I would have to do the work he coached me through and recommended for my home program, but I would be a star student, likely over-achieving in order to get back to running as soon as possible.
However, I wouldn’t break any of his rules he set forth about what to do and what not to do with my knee. I placed my full trust in him, and I depended on his expertise and professionalism to see me through this.
Susan, the MRI tech, told me she, too, used to be a runner. Her knee injury was much more severe, permanently sidelining her. She understood. Yet, she offered abundant hope and encouragement to see me through this crucible I faced, even though she didn’t get that prognosis for herself.
I often tell my patients that I am the coach and the cheerleader, and they are the player. I will tell them what they need to do, how to do it and encourage them, but, ultimately, they must do the work.
Susan was both a coach and cheerleader during the testing, and her kind, yet professional ways will not be forgotten. I needed someone just like her at that difficult time of the MRI.
The physical therapist, too, was the coach and cheerleader I needed. Having treated hundreds of these ACL injuries in his long career, he still offered kindness and sensitivity, knowing I am an avid runner.
Even though I am slowly making the permanent transition from my profession as a speech/swallow therapist to a writer, I do still practice as a therapist. In my 27-year career, I have treated hundreds of patients with communication and swallow problems. My hope, after this experience on the other side of the equation is that I was the best coach and cheerleader I could be, and perhaps, sometimes an angel, when necessary. Many of my patients came to me with broken abilities and broken hearts, just as I came to the MRI tech and the physical therapist. I see now with great clarity how powerful their encouraging words are. You would think, that after all those years of helping people regain their ability to communicate, that I would fully understand the power of my words to my patients. I hope I understood—and now understand more fully—the power of my words to my patients to give them the hope and faith that their lives would indeed improve if I knew I could help them get back to some semblance of “normal,” closer to their prior level of function.
If you require medical care of any kind, my wish for you is that you find the hope and encouragement from your providers that I found from mine. I hope, too, that I can use this experience to more fully understand the difficulties my patients are going through, even though I am likely more fortunate with my prognosis than many of them are with theirs.
Now, as both the patient and therapist, I realize we are all humans in need of care. Sometimes we are the patient, and sometimes the medical professional is the patient, too.