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How the Circus Got Me Into Women’s Health Physical Therapy

Sometimes it takes extraordinary experiences to make you appreciate basic things. Take health care.

I’m not sure I really appreciated health care until I was confronted in the back of my pickup by a 400-pound bear rummaging for food. I was 20 minutes from cell service and a two-hour drive to a hospital. If that bear decided to maul me, it was going to be a while before I saw an ER.

Back then I was a park ranger. My job was to chase bears out of the campgrounds in Yosemite Valley. I was not issued a weapon, just told to “be the bigger bear.” Seriously. I spent my first 10 years out of college working in Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. I am forever grateful for a decade in some of our nation’s most beautiful places.

However, life in remote areas wasn’t all golden eagles and glistening waterfalls. I was hours away from groceries, veterinarians, and doctors. Every year we were evacuated by fire. The narrow roads were often closed by snow or rock.

We often think of barriers to health care in terms of finances or language, but geography matters, too. How often would you go to physical therapy if the round-trip drive was three hours on an icy road? Patients and providers in remote areas face unique challenges, and they are my heroes for toughing it out.

PT student Haley Bercot flips for helping men and women improve their movement.The solitude eventually got to me. After so much quiet, I needed to work with people. I set my sights on physical therapy school and, on a whim, joined the local circus.

In my first circus class, the instructor announced we would be doing pull-ups and back flips. I thought she was crazy. Then we all did assisted pull-ups and backk flips. I felt like Superwoman.

PT student Haley Bercot flips for helping men and women improve their movement.

Circus has introduced me to a whole community of Supermen and Superwomen–women like Carolyn, my 55-year-old teacher and mother of four who can still walk on her hands. Women like Lauren Watson, an adaptive artist who uses a wheelchair to walk but, man, can she fly. Women like plus-size pole dancer Roz Mays, who reminds us that divas come in all sizes. The circus community fills me with great optimism for our potential. I want to pass that optimism along to my patients.

But there is one thing some circus performers aren’t optimistic about: bladder control. I know women who can do one-armed handstands but can’t jump on a trampoline with their kids. The juxtaposition of Amazonian woman and leaky bladders really grabbed my attention. Bladder control is a basic function that people should have. However, I see many of my friends struggle with it postpartum.

I feel fortunate to have helped people explore the public lands that are their birthright, as well as to make people laugh, either by performing or teaching in circus class. The greatest honor, though, will be to help people participate fully in their lives. After that, we can start talking backflips.

Author: Haley Bercot is a first-year student specializing in women’s and men’s health who can be reached at haleybercot@gmail.com

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