Working with People: The Good, the Bad, the Love

Content provided by The O&P EDGE
Current Issue - Free Subscription - Free eNewsletter - Advertise

One of the many reasons I chose to pursue a career in O&P was so I could work with people. "I just want to work more closely with people," I would say, or "I really want to help people directly." I'm not sure what exact image I had in my head about working with people, but I think it included perfect patients who were always easygoing and happy to be helped. I thought I had plenty of experience interacting with people, so the hard part of this profession would be learning how to make an appropriate orthosis or prosthesis for them. Now I know both of these tasks are equally hard, and in some cases working with the patient is definitely harder than choosing and fabricating the device.

My introduction to this colorful world of working with people was at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center, where my first-semester clinical rotations took place. I encountered patients and families who were disgruntled about long waiting times, substance abusers who created paths of destruction, and patients with brain injuries who appeared that they were either mad at everyone or oblivious to the world around them. And that was just the first two weeks!

I met a man who had suffered a stroke and tried his best to tell me something for several minutes before finally deciding to write down the message that he couldn't convey in speech.
I met a man who had suffered a stroke and tried his best to tell me something for several minutes before finally deciding to write down the message that he couldn't convey in speech.

Through this experience, my rose-colored glasses were adjusted to a more realistic view of patient care. However, the lesson did not stop there. I also saw in this hospital a young man with a spinal cord injury (SCI) who desperately wanted to walk, working as hard as he could for several hours just to walk in a small circle during physical therapy. The sad reality is that he probably never will walk again outside of therapy. I met a man who had suffered a stroke and tried his best to tell me something for several minutes before finally deciding to write down the message that he couldn't convey in speech: "It's embarrassing not being able to talk." This brought tears to my eyes, and here I am tearing up again as I remember him. I knew at that moment that I was in the right place. I couldn't help restore that man's speech, but I could certainly accept him as a person, listen to him with respect, and help him walk with his newly fit ankle-foot orthosis (AFO). I began to realize that I should equally accept and find joy in treating the patients who were angry, smelly, or even frightening.

Fast-forward a year. I have recently been experiencing the ups and downs of interacting alone with "patients" as I conduct my research study. One morning several weeks ago, I met up with a research subject in the Biomechanics Lab on campus. As we delved into my carefully prearranged protocol, I quickly realized that I was having a hard time maintaining control of the conversation with this person. I was asking for very specific information but receiving droves of unrelated stories and unsolicited advice on how my study could be made better. I certainly did not relay any of my frustrations out loud, but as I worked diligently to keep the conversation relevant, it hit me—this is not just a precarious situation, it's my new life! I had a set agenda and specific goals for the research session (which, I might add, lasted about an hour longer than planned), and the person sitting in front of me had his own goals, plans, desires, and ideas. For the purposes of my research study, I ultimately had the obligation to remain on track and accomplish the protocol per the approved outline. Thankfully, everything was completed that day without any show-stoppers. In future practice, however, I think the patient has the right to come in with his or her own agenda. If my agenda at that point is more important than my patient's, then I should probably rethink why I am in this profession. Despite my frustrations, I'm glad that I have had this opportunity to work with people during my research.

The very situation that I encountered recently with a research subject is exactly the occasion for which I saved my little piece of paper from the man at the VA hospital over a year ago. I don't ever want to forget the person behind the pathology or the device. Even when patients don't seem to have a high priority of meeting my needs, I hope that I will always remember my commitment to do everything in my power to meet their needs. 

Kristin Carnahan is a graduate student in the MSPO Program at the School of Applied Physiology at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia. She will be sharing her experiences through articles in The O&P EDGE throughout her two-year program.

Bookmark and Share