I have had a love-hate relationship for much of my adult life… not with a person, but with my career. I love being a physical therapist, but almost my entire career has been defined by hard choices. As a new PT, I suffered a devastating back injury after lifting a patient. Hard choice number one: switch from a hospital setting to an outpatient setting or face further difficulties in being able to do my job. Okay, not such a hard choice. I settled in nicely in my new outpatient position, but then the two men I worked for faced their own dilemmas in terms of family demands for one and a divorce for the other. Hard choice number two: buy the practice or go to work for someone else.
I had never wanted to be in business for myself, and this acquisition involved not only a PT practice, but a 10,000 square foot health club as well. My partner encouraged me to take the risk and so began a very steep learning curve, aided by many people who helped me learn the various aspects of the two businesses. That choice turned out to be a good one as well, and for over twelve years, things went well. We had a fun place to work where people felt like family. Our health club members felt comfortable hanging out – often spending more time drinking coffee and visiting with one another than actually exercising, but I think that social time was as good for them as exercising. The PT practice flourished and had a very good reputation among the doctors we worked with. Then the perfect storm hit.
Just as the economy tanked, our local hospital opened a new multi-million dollar wellness center and suddenly, hard choice number three had to be made: down-size by letting the health club go or face mounting expenses with diminished income. I hadn’t made questionable investments or over-extended myself like the companies that got bailed out, but I was still caught in the fall-out. That decision involved having to let employees go and sell off (literally) tons of exercise equipment. The PT practice re-located to a smaller, more cost-effective building, but the closing of the old building had come at a huge cost in terms of over-lapping rent and lost revenue as we heard for months and months, “I didn’t know you were still in practice.” For over a year, I went without a paycheck as every penny went into paying off bills and paying my remaining staff. Then, out of the blue, a position opened with a near-by Veterans’ Administration hospital for a PT position in their out-patient clinic here in my town. Hard choice number four: close the practice entirely and go to work for the government, or keep struggling in an increasingly difficult health care environment.
That was the year I turned fifty. Fifty can be a difficult milestone for many reasons, but for me, it came with a lot of good-byes and a lot of losses. I tried to help my remaining staff find other jobs as we sold off the rest of the clinic equipment and I started my new job.
Fast-forward three years. I like my job. I’m still helping people recover from injuries and surgeries. I have a steady paycheck and benefits I couldn’t afford when I was in business for myself. But there have still been times when it has felt like I failed in not being able to keep the practice afloat.
Then, this summer, a few things happened. I got a birthday card from a former employee – someone I had hired as this person was finishing a prison sentence and was finding it impossible to find work. I thought long and hard about that, but eventually decided this person deserved a second chance. When I could no longer keep this person employed, I spoke to a friend who agreed to take my employee on. I receive a card every Christmas and every birthday from that former employee thanking me for giving them a second chance. It never fails to remind me how blessed my life has been, even when there have been hard choices to be made.
About the time I got that card, I was working with a female veteran who had been in chronic pain for many years from a number of injuries suffered while on active duty and for which she had never had PT. We worked for several weeks, not eliminating her pain, but helping her take some control back over her body. On our last day, she said, “Thank you for giving me my life back.” That one will stay with me a while.
Just as I was discharging her, I opened my author e-mail to find a message from a former patient from my old practice who had had not one, but two knee surgeries that seemed sure to end his amateur sports career. We had worked hard rehabbing his knee; he did everything he was asked to do and more. He had Googled me, found my books and my contact info and took the time to send me a message thanking me for helping him get his knee back in shape and letting me know he is now competing again in triathlons and road races.
I’m a firm believer that things usually do work out for the best, even if there are regrets or times when we wonder “what if?”. I know there will still be moments of regret for some of the choices I’ve had to make, even when they really were the only choice that could be made under the circumstances. But then, I’ll think of moments like those examples above and realize that, even from hard choices, good things can arise.