I first became interested in physical therapy in high school due to injuries as a cross country and track athlete that necessitated frequent appointments with my local physical therapist. As I transitioned to triathlons after high school, I became convinced that a career in sports physical therapy would be my goal and I looked forward to working with endurance athletes like myself in the future. I planned to major in kinesiology, working towards my goal of becoming a sports physical therapist. During my undergraduate years, I developed hip pain and further evaluation revealed a hip malformation, leading to two surgeries in the next few years. I returned to physical therapy following my surgeries, dedicated to my home exercises and an eventual return to elite triathlon. The experience of trying to come back from my hip surgeries was a turning point in my life. My hip pain and dysfunction continued, regardless of how dedicated I was to my rehab. We tend to envision our goals and plans on our own terms, and we like to believe that we have complete control over our recovery; if we do everything right, we will get better. Losing my triathlon career and developing chronic hip pain shook my beliefs about myself and the world to the core. I began to have doubts about my career in physical therapy. I felt like I had been pushed aside by many of my healthcare providers. Given this, it was the first time that I considered how those with chronic pain and dysfunction are treated in our healthcare system.
Still trying to cope with losing my identity as an elite triathlete, I threw my energy into my undergraduate schoolwork, adding another major in psychology and minors in biology and sociology. I became passionate about the connections between the biological and psychological sciences, and knew I wanted to use my knowledge and compassion to help others live in a way that is meaningful to them. I entered physical therapy school a few years later but was again confronted with a challenge. I developed a virus during my first year, and while some of the symptoms had improved within a few weeks, I continued to feel unwell. I have lived with widespread chronic pain and unrelenting exhaustion ever since. My personal experiences with various healthcare providers since my sickness solidified my commitment to providing a different experience for my patients. I want to be a provider with a reputation for providing a safe space for patients to share deeply personal issues without fear of judgement or dismissal. I feel that so often as healthcare providers we can tend to avoid patients with chronic pain, mental health diagnoses, or stigmatizing conditions because we are not confident in our ability to address these issues. It can seem to be a reflection on us as a provider if our patients do not improve as other “less complex” patients might. I would argue that providing validation to these patients can help empower them more than any objective measure may detect; it can show our strength as a provider that we are willing to engage with those who have been underserved by the medical community in the past.
I developed an interest in pelvic health physical therapy because of the conditions that the specialty addresses. Many patients with pelvic heath concerns have suffered in silence for a long time, often due to concerns of stigma regarding their diagnosis as well as experience being dismissed by healthcare providers in the past. These patients have demonstrated significant courage and initiative to seek out pelvic health physical therapy. These patients are just as worthy and deserving of our best efforts as an elite athlete may be. Pelvic health issues such as chronic pain or incontinence can significantly impair a patient’s quality of life. Not only may the patient have pain or dysfunction, but they may be experiencing grief from losing an identity that they once held, or isolation from suffering silently. With regards to pelvic health conditions, there is often an additional layer of stigma that not only affects personal relationships but too often medical care. I aim to not only treat my patient’s physical complaints, but also validate their experiences and emotions.
I was also attracted to pelvic health physical therapy because I feel that the specialty shows that we can recognize deficits in our own profession and seek to address them. Many conditions treated by pelvic health physical therapy would have been considered out of a physical therapist’s domain not long ago. The development of pelvic health physical therapy speaks to another idea that I feel passionate about: we can do something even if we see no one else doing it around us. We do not have to limit ourselves to the limits of others. Just like our patients, we all have unique experiences, personalities, and skillsets. I could not have imagined I would now ha
ve chronic pain and chronic fatigue when I was an elite triathlete years ago; I would have thought it could never happen to me. And that thought motivates me more than any other; we cannot begin to understand a patient’s journey that led them to our office. We can, however, be that provider who validates their experience and empowers them to continue striving for what is important to them.
Written by Zoe Sirotiak, SPT
Author Bio: Zoe Sirotiak is a third-year DPT student at the University of Iowa. Prior to physical therapy school, she received her B.S. from Iowa State University with majors in kinesiology and psychology, and minors in biology and sociology.