“The Queen of Darkness” — that’s the name my youngest cousin Devon gave his physical therapist. Born three months premature, Devon was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of 2. There is a 16-year age difference between the two of us. When he was just learning to walk, I was preparing to head off to college, but we always had a bond that is very special to me. Devon’s entrance into our family exposed me to the world of a child with special needs which completely changed my life trajectory.
Sophomore year of college is when I decided I was not only going into physical therapy, but that I was also going to specialize in pediatrics so I could help children like Devon. This meant becoming another child’s “queen of darkness,” but my cousin had well prepared me for the emotional roller coaster that you ride when you work with kids.
Pediatric physical therapy is so, so rewarding but a flood of different emotions pour into each and every session. I’m continuously being inspired and challenged, laughing and joking through sessions and more often than not, sharing an emotional bond that is unique and special to each child and his family. It’s an emotional roller coaster I wouldn’t trade for the world. It’s what I love. It’s what sets my soul on fire. I am inspired on a daily basis.
Inspiration hits me when a little girl with a prosthetic leg comes in to her session saying, “Look Mrs. Jennifer,” and taking her first steps independently after months of work. Or when I walk down the hallway of a clinic and hear another therapist’s child telling herself, “I can do it, I can do it,” as she learns to ride an adaptive tricycle. I’m overjoyed when a patient tells me, “You did a good job,” because he was happy to ride a bike after having a stroke that caused him to lose his vision.
If those stories give you some happy tears, allow me to balance you — as my patients do. There are also days when frustration is at an all-time high. It’s definitely a challenge when a child plops down on his little bottom, won’t let you touch him and screams, “HELP!” if you come near him. There are sessions that consist of me saying a child’s name 10 times in row and snapping him out of a trance because his attention span is that of a flea. And of course, there’s the tiny human that anyone who has or works with kids can relate to … The Biter (need I say more?).
There are times when parents come in distraught because of a new diagnosis, an insurance denial of a very important piece of equipment that their child’s independence depends on, or just frustrated by the “extra” that comes with being the parent of special needs child. I become the listening ear, the mediator and/or the advocate. And the hardest day of them all is when the reality that they are different has hit your patient and they say things like, “I just wish it wasn’t this hard.”
But an upswing of laughter is always timely when the 8-year-old patient slaps you on the backside and says, “Heyyyy girl,” or the 5-year-old tells you, “Mrs. Jennifer you are exhausting me,” after being challenged with an obstacle course. To date, my favorite moment was when I asked my patient why she wasn’t wearing a coat and she responded, “The cold never bothered me anyway.”
Sure there are days that are filled with temper tantrums and tears, but they are outweighed by days filled with laughter and the feeling of accomplishment when months and years of hard work are displayed in the achievement of taking that first step or walking without an assistive device. I have an amazing job that allows me to interact with some amazing children. When you work with this population you become much more than the therapist. You become the “plus one” — friend, counselor, advocate, disciplinarian — you get invited to birthday parties, basketball games, graduations; you become a family member.
I have been fortunate to work with different organizations such as Tri My Best Triathlon (created for kids with special needs), and Music City Trykes, who build adaptive bicycles for children with physical challenges.
While the world reminds these special children of their limitations on a daily basis, one of my missions is to help them recognize their special gifts and abilities and to be a part of helping them become their best selves.
My mission in life has always been to pour into any life that I come in contact with and to be given the gift of pouring my heart and soul into children and encouraging them on a daily basis.
To be strong, capable and powerful individuals is a gift I hold dear in my heart.