Physical Therapy: No pain, No Gain?
Knee surgery. No big deal. Simple carpentry techniques applied to a
human leg. I had my right knee surgically repaired when I was nineteen. Some
good painkillers, some excellent sympathy and I was better than before.
Two decades later the other knee needed work.No big deal. Except this
time I ended up with complications like fevers, night sweats, blood clots,
infections and compulsive complaining. My leg was immobilized so long that the
repaired joint didn’t bend at all,hardly qualifying it as a knee.
The doctor who instigated all this misery ordered physical therapy. I don’t
take well to orders. I would have preferred that he offer a cash settlement for my
pain and suffering. Guess I never mentioned that as an option. Instead I
crutched slowly out of his office with a slip of paper condemning me to twelve
sessions of physical therapy. I know, wrong attitude. But I was afraid those
therapists would take away my crutches and worse, deprive me of my trusty leg
I showed up for my first physical therapy session with trepidation. Others
in the waiting room did not appear particularly distressed. They were distracted
by one of those promotional videos put out by pharmaceutical companies. I sat
down, my leg stretched out into the center of the room as if inviting people to trip
over it. Fortunately my name was called before that happened.
I was shown into a large, cold room. It had carpet printed with what
appeared to be the outlines of dead cartoon characters. The room’s perimeter
was ringed with huge threatening metal devices featuring straps for the unwilling.
Sets of stairs going nowhere sat in the middle of the room. Mirrors were on all
the walls, probably to foil escape attempts.
A perky woman with a pink clipboard introduced herself. I think she may
have been the head of the department. I was unable to note
her credentials because she spoke to me while squatting down next to my chair,
nearly sitting on her heels, a position I couldn’t have managed with the healthiest
of knees. Her supreme flexiblility and clipboard manipulation skills made me feel
as agile as a chunk of concrete by comparison.
She asked me many personal questions about my anticipated future knee
usage. Then she requested that I remove my leg brace and pants. I immediately
recognized that I was in purgatory because she handed me PAPER SHORTS,
size small. Those shorts, paired with my black socks, were a conclusive fashion
statement reflecting back at me in all those mirrors.
Although I kept a cooperative smile on my face, I suspected I was being
broken down like an entry-level prisoner. I sorely missed the security of my old
pal the leg brace. I even entertained an irrational fear that a well-intentioned
therapist might force my knee to bend just to snap that pesky scar tissue free.
Nope. Ms. Clipboard simply asked me to perform a few exercises in a sitting
position, helped me put the brace back on and then freed me. I left feeling
enormous relief. So far no pain, only humiliation.
Next session I was paired with an unsmiling muscled therapist named Jeff.
He loomed over me, at least as tall as Lurch. He grunted at my greetings and
made oompf noises in response to my questions. Being a quick study I realized
he wasn’t going to let civility get in the way of his job. Fine. If I have to tread up
stairs going nowhere I won’t crack any M.C. Escher jokes.
At least I figured I had the paper shorts thing figured out. I wore a skirt so
my knee could be freely observed. Wrong. Jeff made me wear paper shorts
again. I tried objecting but all I got was that oompf noise combined with a faint
shake of his head. There were other physical therapy victims in the room (none
wearing paper clothing), but they all had smiling therapists and were engaged in
dignified pursuits like wrist exercises.
First Jeff instructed me to do some exercises with my legs up and my
paper butt exposed, clearly designed for maximum embarrassment. I strained to
lift and bend the troublesome knee but didn’t accomplish much. A displeased
grunt came from Jeff. He told me to try harder. My leg trembled. My discolored
knee moved ever so slightly. Not enough according to Jeff. I’m not fond of
pain, especially when imposed by a completely unsympathetic human. I didn’t
direct any fury in his direction, but I began to suspect that Jeff heard his share of
ranting from patients.
I wondered bitterly why Jeff wanted to be a physical therapist anyway.
Did he choose this career path because he missed the Inquisition by a few
centuries? Had he wanted to be a regular couch-type therapist but failed to
grasp the rudiments of Freudian psychoanalysis?
While I was speculating on his karmic path Jeff was setting up a piece of
“equipment.” I would have tried to make a run for the door but Jeff had put my
crutches far across the room. He probably learned that trick when previous
patients gimped frantically away. He helped hoist me up on a slanted table
outfitted with trick levers and foot rests that looked suspiciously like stirrups, then
instructed me to assume a contorted position. It seemed to me the table already
shimmered with the sweat of previous sufferers.This time my knee was expected
to perform push and pull maneuvers.
My efforts did not impress Jeff. He remarked tersely that I had “too much
swelling.” (Honey, that’s the size of my knee in real life.) He said until I made
progress I would “have to get the electrodes.” Without further explanation he set
me on a high table, put sticky wires on my knee and hooked me up to some
arcane-looking electrical stimulation device. Then he put leaky cold packs on my
leg. I thought--electricity and water, these don’t mix! I wondered if I’d perish
and my outline would join the cartoon characters on the carpet.When I asked
some frantic safety questions he replied oompf.
Once he turned the device on I realized I would live through the
experience.Then I thought--paper shorts and water,these don’t mix!
Nonetheless,Jeff left me plugged in for 15 minutes with only an aged magazine
for solace. I was too demoralized to plot any retaliation but at least the shorts
Finally Jeff unhooked me. I wanted to snatch those electrodes,glue them
to his meaty flesh and zap him every time he said oompf. But not as badly as I
wanted to get out of there.
Apparently there were minutes left in our mandatory time together. Instead of
getting my crutches Jeff stood there. Something inspired him to use words
instead of sounds. He told me about his weight lifting routine, all the while looking
at the shrunken muscles in my leg. I kept my faux smile firmly in place, thinking
only eleven more sessions in purgatory. And then suddenly I figured it out. For
me, physical therapy would be most effective if he didn’t pander to me, even
conversationally. Otherwise the security of my leg brace might keep me in a
permanent state of lock-knee. Maybe Jeff wasn’t so dim after all. Patients who
rant might try harder. Maybe I’ll ask him his thoughts on Freud at our next
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