chronic illness

Chronic Illness – Can You Have One and Be a Successful PT?

The short answer: Yes. However, you came here to read a bit more than a one-word answer, so I suppose I’ll expound upon that.

I don’t have a sample size of people with chronic illness. I didn’t conduct a survey and find which clinicians have what illness and for how long they’ve been practicing.

What I do have is the knowledge and experience that comes from having a chronic illness for 18 years, friends and colleagues who have struggled and overcome, and friends and colleagues who continue to be resilient in their struggle.
  • Do all of these people say their illnesses can interfere with their jobs, responsibilities, free time, and vacations? Yes.
  • Do some of them feel that their dreams are being interrupted, crushed, or changed? Yes.
  • Do they make it work? Yes.
For some, that means that a physical therapy career isn’t a feasible option. Between the grind of graduate or undergraduate school, and the potential hospital visits, surgeries, sick days, etc., it’s too much.

Those of us who are healthy must remember that health is the greatest luxury, and it allows us opportunities that some struggle to obtain. While the nature of our jobs is to work with those who are working to regain function, we must be cognizant of our coworkers who are struggling to maintain it.

Limitations look different for different people, and of course, diagnoses can happen at any point in one’s lifetime.

Some are diagnosed when they have just recently embarked on their careers. Some people are well into their profession, and some are children with dreams of how their adulthood will manifest.

With chronic illness – be it inflammatory bowel disease, depression, schizophrenia, endometriosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or a host of others – getting ready in the morning may be the largest hurdle a person will face all day. For some, it’s winding down at night. For others, it’s battling fatigue or visceral pain that lasts several days or weeks.

While remembering that no one’s challenges are the same, the following are means by which I’ve realized a personal standard of achievement as a physical therapist, and hopefully these are helpful to you, the reader, as well.

Talking to employers about your chronic illness

If you are passionate about a certain area or specialty, explore it. Try not to be dissuaded or discouraged because of your condition.

  • In the United States, employers, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, are required to provide adequate measures to meet employees’ accessibility and/or medical needs.
  • There is also the Family and Medical Leave Act, which states that employees are allowed unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks due to family or medical emergencies.
  • If there are questions regarding appropriate job-site accommodations, the Job Accommodation Network is a great resource, and it is one of the free services provided by the U.S. Department of Labor.
  • Another piece to consider is some settings – such as schools – have unionized contracts that allow a certain allotment of sick days per school year.
While it’s daunting to discuss a disability with an employer – and chronic illness does count as a disability – it may be preferable to preemptively discuss rather than explain your absences or change in performance later.

It’s easy to feel as though you’re expressing weakness or choosing a cop-out when bringing up medical or accessibility needs. But you’re not. We’re not.

In order to do our best work, we must take care of ourselves. We’re valuable to companies, and we’re valuable to our patients, and we must remember that.

Knowing the healthcare providers in your area

One of the most important pieces to maintaining good health is having trusted and skilled healthcare providers near you.

The unpredictable nature of certain conditions makes any kind of traveling a difficult option for some, and proximity to healthcare providers is often very high on the priority list. When I began graduate school at Northwestern University, I immediately switched my gastroenterologist to a clinician within Northwestern Memorial Hospital system, which was only 5 miles from my school.

Physician-patient relationships take just moments to start but can take years to build. If having a trusted, long-term healthcare provider is important to you, then certain locations or types of therapy, i.e. travel physical therapy, might not be the best option.

Having your specialists and primary care provider within a certain radius may be the most comforting to you as it pertains to your individual needs. Therefore, it’s key to know yourself and what makes you feel the most control over your condition.

Find a support network

Without a support network, it is easy to feel isolated, and not just alone, but lonely. Whatever this term “support network,” means to you, I urge you to find one.

Here are some ways to find that support network:

  • Immersing yourself in the national organization for your particular condition
  • Developing new – or maintaining old – friendships
  • Staying close with nearby family
  • Becoming involved in a religious or secular community organization
  • Being an active member of your alumni network
  • Seeking out a mental healthcare provider
  • Joining a choir, hosting a monthly book club

Whatever it is, find people. Find people who can either share your experience, offer relief from your experience, or both. I encourage you to lighten the load in whatever way best suits you.

Yes, you can absolutely be a successful PT with a chronic illness. It’s up to you to take steps to find that support network, understand the resources available to you, and make your own health a priority; it’s the only way you can offer your best self to your patients and your employers.

Not sure which type of job will work best for you? Sign up for CovalentCareers and talk to our career coaches about your options. Everything is FREE! We’re here to serve you and make you happy and successful in your PT career!

About Rachel Winter

Rachel Winter
Rachel is a physical therapist in Chicago, IL. Formerly a pediatric & school-based PT in the northern suburbs, she recently began a new role as a Women’s Health PT in July, 2017. She graduated from Northwestern University with her DPT in 2014. In her free time, she enjoys singing in a choir, seeing live theater, writing, exercising, & volunteering for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. In 2017, Rachel became a Healthcare Consultant for Pfizer’s Ulcerative Colitis Patient Advisory Board.

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