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Your Career in Physical Therapy

After an injury is healed or an illness is treated, the effects can linger on. Just as a physician who sets a broken bone, or the surgeon who repairs a broken blood vessel in the brain, the physical therapist plays a key role in a patient returning to the life he or she knew before.

If you enjoy people, are driven, have an aptitude for science and can smile through the toughest of times, a career in physical therapy may be right for you.

American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) has declared October physical therapy month and hopes to increase the awareness and understanding of the physical therapist's role in the nation's health care system.

Dr. Feelgood

Sometimes, Suzanne Perlik’s extensive knowledge in the field of physical therapy just isn’t enough. Sometimes her ever-present smile just can’t break through a patient having a particularly hard time recovering from an illness or injury. Sometimes she needs a little help – the four-legged kind.

“Norris, the most popular therapist in our department!” says Perlik of her 3-and-a-half-year-old golden retriever/labrador retriever mix.

While Norris may live with Perlik and her husband, Matt, he is by no means an average pet. Norris is a certified assistance dog, trained by Canine Companions for Independence, who works with Perlik at the clinic.

Norris is trained to open doors, pick things up off the ground, pull socks off a person’s feet and a myriad of other tasks. The thing he does best, however, came naturally.

“He most often simply gives love,” says Perlik. “Patients have bad days sometimes. Maybe they aren’t progressing as quickly as they’d hoped and are feeling down. So I’ll bring Norris out to brighten up their day.”

Even giving and receiving love can have clinical benefits. For example, Norris’ soft coat can help patients who have had nerve damage from a spinal cord injury. When they pet him, they can concentrate on the sensation on their fingers. Other patients might simply pet Norris as a way to strengthen motor functions in an arm or hand.

Norris also has helped a patient with Parkinson’s disease rehab his voice. The man was having a hard time knowing when he was speaking loud enough for others to hear him. By having Norris across the room, he would have to speak commands loudly for Norris to obey. When he saw Norris react, he knew he was speaking loudly enough.

Perlik never owned a dog before Norris, and now she can’t imagine life, or work, without him. She learned of assistance dogs while visiting an inpatient clinic for spinal cord injuries and saw the benefit a dog might bring to her outpatient clinic.

“Sometimes patients are more apt to work with Norris over a human therapist, for whatever reason. It just totally changes the tone,” she says.

And apparently, lives as well.

Suzanne (Eggleston) Perlik, BS ’02, is a physical therapist working in the field of neurological rehabilitation at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s outpatient facility in Columbus, Ohio. Her job is to evaluate patients with neurologic disorders resulting from injury (traumatic brain injury, spinal cord) or illness (stroke, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis) and then create and carry out a plan of care to help them regain as much ability as possible.

Many people might think of orthopedic rehabilitation when they think of physical therapy, but neurological rehabilitation is a rapidly growing field within physical therapy. Recent advances in medicine now allow people to survive injuries that in the past would have been fatal.

Research has shown that, over the last 30 years, the mortality rate of patients suffering from a traumatic brain injury has been cut in half, from 50 percent to 25 percent.1 The result is more people living with the effects of traumatic brain injuries, and many need therapy from doctors like Perlik.

“We are seeing people with really, really severe injuries that otherwise would not be alive,” she says. “But as medicine evolves, so does therapy. There is a lot of research occurring right now in multiple areas to help us determine the best interventions for our patients.”

A combination of increased demand along with changes to state and federal licensing regulations for physical therapists makes physical therapy a career on the rise. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 39 percent growth rate for physical therapists over the next 10 years,2 much faster than other careers.

It’s a far different outlook than just a few years ago when Perlik was a student at ONU. She first enrolled as a biology major pursuing an option in prephysical therapy, only to change the option to prephysician’s assistant to better “cover her bases” when the time came to find a job.

In all honesty, the prephysical therapy and prephysician’s assistant options offered at ONU are very similar. They both share many of the same core classes and are taught by the same outstanding faculty. Perlik credits her ONU education for giving her an edge in PT school at Ohio State University and helping her get to where she is today.

“I remember spending countless hours in the offices of Dr. Suniga, Dr. Woodley, Dr. Aulthouse, Dr. Hoagstrom, Dr. Haines and Dr. Kurtz making sure I had a good grasp of the material in their respective classes,” says Perlik. “Never once did they seem too busy to answer my questions, and often we would talk about life after we ‘talked shop.’ I felt so supported – like the faculty was my own personal cheering section. They really made an impact on me not only educationally, but also personally and professionally.”

Perhaps it is her experience receiving support that has helped Perlik become so adept at giving it. Depending on the severity of a patient’s impairment, Perlik may work with them for as little as a couple weeks to as long as a year. During those extended periods, staying positive and offering treatment that really works is crucial to earning – and keeping – a patient’s trust.

“I had one patient that I worked a really long time with. When she came to me, she was unable to even sit unsupported. I would have to help her sit up. And when we were finished with her therapy, she was walking with just a little bit of help,” says Perlik. “That was amazing to see – the look on her face. You can’t have a bad day when something like that happens.”

If you want amazing days to be a part of your career, contact Dr. Rema Suniga, associate professor of biological sciences, for more information about ONU’s option in prephysical therapy.