It is 6:45 AM on a Friday. I am a twenty-four year old, third year Doctor of Physical Therapy student, sitting in front of another university’s classroom. I am alone, in a state I have never visited, thousands of miles from my home in New York to take a Women’s Health course. To top it all off, there are forty women in attendance… and I am the only male. I try not to ruminate over the probability that I will likely be the only male participant in attendance at the “Pelvic Physical Therapy Level 1” course in Conway, Arkansas, but I still find myself concerned with how I will be perceived by the class.
The impression I was under leading into the pelvic floor course was guided by Doctors of Physical Therapy who knew as little about women’s health as I did. The first response I received from a DPT after expressing my desire to pursue women’s health as a profession was, “Wait, you want to do that as a boy?” Despite the person’s confusion, I received a great deal of help and support from my professors at Stony Brook University in the process of signing up for the “Pelvic Physical Therapy Level 1” course. Prior to attending, I communicated with several physical therapists specializing in pelvic floor dysfunction at local continuing education events. Most of these therapists had the idea that all patients seeking pelvic floor physical therapy desired female therapists. Misconceptions left behind, I thankfully went into the course with an open mind.
On day 1 of the Pelvic Floor Level 1 course, I was concerned that no one would be accepting of me since I was the only male participant. The female students were kind, though initially hesitant to address me; I spent the first day with two empty seats located directly to my left and right. Perhaps the empty seats were a coincidence, but there were also verbal signs of perplexity from my peers such as, “they allow boys in the class? Wait till I tell my husband.” In hindsight, confusion by the company of a male student may have been justified since unlike OB/GYNs, women’s health physical therapy is a female dominated profession.
The confusion of some was balanced by polite intrigue from others. Anyone brave enough to sit within arm’s length of me graciously humored my attendance with friendly dialogue. As the day progressed, more students seemingly warmed up to the fact that I was simply another person with similar professional interests, only I have a “Y” chromosome. By the end of the first day, I was eating dinner with a group of classmates as newly found friends.
Leading up to the Pelvic Floor Level 1 course, I was most concerned that the course instructors would not approve of my presence; I quickly learned that my fears were unfounded. The course instructors, including my medical model, were empathetic and treated me as though we had known each other for years. In addition to being benevolent, the course instructors worked diligently to produce a fun and spirited environment that promoted learning and development of new professional relations. I was personally encouraged to socialize with other course participants during breaks to prevent the profession from becoming a “Girl’s club.”
Since I am a male, and thus had to work exclusively with my medical model, the course instructors were concerned that I would not experience how the pelvic anatomy varies; females were able to alternate partners a few times each lab. By the second day, another student willing to work with me was discretely identified, which helped expose me to some amount of variation in pelvic anatomy. From the standpoint of giving me an experience from the patient’s point of view, course instructors also found a way of giving me the option to become familiar with internal electrical stimulation… but that is a story for another time. There was no shortage of professional representation at my lab station as well; lab assistants quickly and clearly addressed any questions I had. Even when I required extra help understanding coursework, Darla Cathcart, the course host, facilitated my comprehension of material by working with me past her scheduled hours.
Lori Mize was the leading instructor at the “Pelvic Physical Therapy Level 1” course in Conway, Arkansas. Lori had experience with one male student prior to my attendance, an insignificant amount to say the least, but I could have easily been fooled; she effortlessly handled the balancing act of making both male and female parties feel equal. Lori and her colleagues successfully dismantled any gender barriers while preserving the academic standards of the American Physical Therapy Association. Despite the friction received from peers when I initially began researching pelvic floor physical therapy as a specialty, “Pelvic Physical Therapy Level 1” left me eager to continue my journey and promote the development of what I believe will be a very rewarding field. Thank you to everyone who taught at the course, as well as, my peers who attended the class, I look forward to working together in the future.
Nicholas Vernola Jr. SPT
Nicholas Vernola Jr. is a third year Doctor of Physical Therapy student attending the State University of New York at Stony Brook; he is on track to graduate the summer of 2016. Nicholas earned his Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science from SUNY Cortland in May of 2013. Nicholas took steps toward a specialization in pelvic health during the second year of his DPT program, by weekly shadowing a local urologist. Over the last year, Nicholas attended a rehabilitation lecture series in New York through the North Shore LIJ Hospital labeled “Coccydynia and Pelvic Pain Conditions,” as well as completing his “Pelvic Health Level I” certification through the Section on Women’s Health at the University of Central Arkansas. Beginning March of 2016, Nicholas will start a four-month clinical rotation under a physical therapist that specializes in pelvic health. The March 2016 clinical rotation will be held in New Cannon, Connecticut at an outpatient facility. Currently, Nicholas resides in Port Jefferson, New York where he continues his DPT education and can be contacted at Nicholas.Vernola@Stonybrook.Edu.