One of the benefits of being a pediatric physical therapist is the relationship the therapist can build with their young patients. Some children may need physical therapy for an extended amount of time throughout their childhood. This allows the therapist and child to form a special relationship based on trust and compassion.
As pediatric physical therapists, we have mastered the ability to create a welcoming and friendly environment for the children we treat. The child’s needs always drive the treatment, which change as they grow. When we treat infants and toddlers, we focus much of our attention on setting up the environment, encouraging the children to move in such a way as to meet their gross motor needs. We often work on the child’s development, helping them to learn how to crawl, jump, run or even walk for the first time. These are exciting milestones that we get to be a part of. It’s so rewarding to see how proud the parents are when a child takes a step for the first time. Parents grab their phones to take pictures and sometimes become a little teary eyed.
As the children get older, we play fun games that require them to move in and out of desired postures for strength, stabilization, flexibility, agility and endurance. We build strong muscles, powerful hearts, improved motor control, healthy habits, and great friendships. It is fun for the therapist to let our inner child out. Often we are sillier than the children – we come up with creative and entertaining ways to achieve our desired goals. In the same day we can be a pirate, a fairy, an airplane, a major league baseball player, a rock star, a coach, a teacher, and a shoulder to cry on. Together with parents, caregivers, and friends we are the loudest cheerleaders and the warmest huggers.
When children reach school age, particularly as they approach middle school, many of them can become burned out on therapy. They are tired of the clinic, the hard work, and being different from their friends. It’s a challenging time, but it can also be the most rewarding. It’s at this point that many children begin to take ownership of their therapy. Because we have developed a trusting relationship over the years, we are able to have honest conversations with them. The children tell us their concerns and their frustrations and we work together to overcome them in a way the children can relate to and enjoy. Sometimes that means revolving everything around basketball, sometimes it’s cranking up the music and hosting “Dance Party Friday!” It’s wonderful to hear the children say, “Look, I can hop on this leg now,” “I wheeled my chair all the way to the cafeteria by myself,” or “I was able to play a full game of soccer today!” They begin to realize that they’re working together as a team with their physical therapist and parents to become stronger and achieve their goals, while having fun at the same time.
Finally, as high school comes around and college and careers loom, we focus the majority of our attention on maximizing independence. Participation is no longer just about the classroom and the playground, it’s about adult life, health, work, and relationships. The physical therapist helps the adolescent enter adulthood with a toolbox full of strategies, exercises, and confidence to help him reach his full potential.
As we work with the kids throughout their lives it feels as if we have become part a part of their family, and they a part of ours. There is a special bond that is created over the years between the child and the physical therapist and we are so grateful for that feeling each and every day.
Maureen Suhr is a doctor of physical therapy and board certified pediatric specialist. She is assistant manager of the Hospital for Special Surgery Rehabilitation Network.