By Jon Waterhouse
While some budding healthcare professionals find therapeutic services appealing, they aren’t sure which way to go. Will it be physical, occupational or speech therapy?
In an effort to help those standing at the therapeutic crossroads, we gathered a panel of professionals in each field. They each reveal how they found themselves in their respective professions, how to get there, and what it takes to rise to the top.
Dr. Ingrid Anderson, owner Intown Physical Therapy
After becoming disenchanted with her career in business operations, Dr. Anderson became drawn to the field of physical therapy. She had received therapy herself due to a running injury, and soon became fascinated with the profession.
Becoming a physical therapist means attaining a doctoral degree, and the journey takes a minimum of seven years. Since Anderson had a BFA, she needed to go back to school for a year for prerequisite science courses before sinking her teeth into physical therapy school.
After receiving her Doctor of hysical Therapy degree from Georgia State University in 2010, she then completed the Mercer Orthopaedic Residency program in 2011 and received her Orthopaedic Clinical Specialist in 2012. In order to zero in on a specialty, Dr. Anderson did an extra year of residency. This included more than 100 hours of self-directed study in neuroanatomy and neurodynamics.
“If you want to work in more competitive areas like neuro rehab or pediatric orthopaedics, the residency isn’t required but highly recommended,” she said.
Chalking up degree isn’t all it takes, Dr. Anderson explained. To succeed at a career in physical therapy, you need several character traits.
“You have to have a great deal of empathy,” she explained, “and you really need to be able to put yourself in the patient’s shoes.”
Another essential quality of a physical therapist, she says, includes the ability to teach. Explaining an injury and schooling a patient on how to overcome it is key.
“At the same time, you also have to be good at pushing and motivating a patient,” she said. “You not only need to be able to explain the therapeutic process, but you need to be able to motivate.”
The final essential trait, she adds, is an insatiable thirst for knowledge. In her opinion, the best physical therapists don’t simply rest on their laurels and repeat the same old interventions or tests. They need the desire to continue studying on their own, and exploring new evidence and cutting edge treatments.
Dr. Anderson operates her own private practice under the philosophy of tackling the problem head on without dragging things out. Although she works with some patients who have longterm issues and others who may need time to regain their strength, her goal is to quickly identify the issue and take care of it as swiftly as possible.
“If we don’t have a clear direction in the first few sessions, or if we haven’t made great strides in getting better, I’m going to refer somebody out,” she said. “We should know really quickly what we’re dealing with and how long it will take.”
She says she found several advantages of having a private practice. These include the clinical freedom to treat people as she chooses and the flexibility to serve a wider range of patients. Making your own hours, she says, helps too.
“I can work whatever 80 hours a week I want to work,” she said with a laugh.
Dr. Anderson typically sees approximately 10 patients each day. She doesn’t utilize lots of exercise equipment, and instead opts for corrective exercises using body weight, slings and bands. She then gives each patient a list of exercises to use at home.
At the end of the day, however, the most fulfilling part of her profession lies in the results.
“I see a lot of people come in here hopeless,” she said. “And being able to give them the hope that they’ll be able to get back to doing what they want and need to do is definitely the most rewarding part of my job.”
Kim Ritger, owner Intown Atlanta Speech Therapy
According to Kim Ritger, the ability to speak remains the core of what makes us human.
“I felt like giving people the gift of speech,” she said, “whether it’s something they have never had or something that was taken away from them, is giving hem the ability to communicate and connect with people.”
It was that allure that detoured Ritger from a major in special education. Instead she opted to pursue undergraduate and master’s degrees in speech pathology.
After graduation, Ritger worked in both school system and hospital environments. While working at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston Hospital, Ritger worked with in-patient acute care. She dealt with the sickest of the sick. Although it proved to be a high-stress situation, Ritger says she loved it. Each day was different, and she had the opportunity to work closely with doctors and other medical professionals.
After having her second child, Ritger chose to leave Egleston. Yet being a speech therapist meant she had the opportunity to reinvent herself once again.
“One of the great things about my field is you can work within your field,” she explained. “You can change what you do, and you’re qualified to work anywhere.”
In 2012, Ritger opened her own pediatric practice, Intown Atlanta Speech Therapy. “The advantage to working in this setting for me is you get real close to these children and their families, and you get to work one-on-one with them,” she said. “Because I opened my practice in my neighborhood, I mostly treat my neighbors and my children’s classmates. My whole goal was to create this neighborhood speech therapy environment and to provide this service that my neighbors needed and wanted. It worked out really well for me.”
To thrive in the profession, Ritger says you need a great deal of patience, especially when focusing on pediatrics. Receiving a serious diagnosis such as autism can be traumatic for the parents. This can result in a great deal of frustration and anger, and you have to be able to handle that, she says.
“You have to kind of take on a role as a counselor supporting them through this time of crisis,” she said. “You have to be sensitive to that. You have to understand what these families are going through.”
Valencia McCoy, Emory University Hospital Midtown
While physical therapy focuses on a patient regaining gross motor skills, including standing and walking, occupational therapy takes another step.
“With OT, we actually have the opportunity to look at the activities of daily living and the function of people’s lives,” explained Valencia McCoy, who works in the hospital’s rehabilitation therapy program. “We work at allowing people to participate in life skills on a day-to-day basis.”
This could include a stroke victim learning the best way to bathe or a paraplegic adapting to a new way of getting dressed. Occupational therapy also can involve working with everything from visual motor and cognitive skills to fine motor skills.
To enter the field, prospects must attain a master’s degree. A doctorate in occupational therapy is also offered. It is, however, highly competitive, according McCoy. Although occupational therapy continues to be a popular field, only a limited amount of schools offer OT degrees.
Of course it all begins with an undergraduate degree. McCoy suggests students begin with a background in biology, chemistry or another related science. Once in an OT program, that student will be better prepared for higher level classes such as gross anatomy and neurology.
Working in occupational therapy runs the patient gamut from neonatal to the elderly.
“It’s an unselfish and very giving job,” McCoy said. “You have to have the compassion to listen, to care and the willingness to work one-on-one with a patient.”
McCoy explains that occupational therapists straddle the line of psychology and have to be aware of the psychosis of each patient.
“Patients have to learn to deal with whatever diagnosis they have,” she said, “whether it’s a brain tumor, a stroke or a leg amputation. So you have to know how the body and mind come together to deal with that situation.”