Blog: ‘Physiotherapist, Heal Thyself’: Lessons I Learned From Becoming a Patient

For the past seventeen years, I’ve prided myself on my ability to give patients quality, compassionate physiotherapy care, by imagining what it is like to step into their shoes.  I picture in my mind which physical and emotional obstacles they might be facing in their recovery, and decide how best to overcome them.  My treatments often include lectures on the importance of staying positive, and on the consequences of not being diligent with the home exercises I prescribe.  I genuinely thought I had a great understanding of the experience of physiotherapy patients; that is, until I became one.

This past April, I underwent a “lateral retinacular release with medial plication and debridement of patellar chondrosis”.  In plain English, the surgeon cut about 6 inches of tissue on the outside of my knee, scraped the underside of my kneecap, and used a suture on the inside part of the kneecap to secure it more tightly.  Before surgery, I knew in theory everything that was going to occur, and the general course of recovery that was expected.  However; as I awoke from general anaesthetic into the new world of “patient”, I had no idea how profoundly different things were going to feel from “the other side”.

Over the years, I must have instructed hundreds of patients in how to walk with crutches; but until surgery, I’d never felt the total body fatigue that results from their use; or the fear that results from having to descend a steep flight of stairs using two little sticks and only one of your legs.  I must have told dozens of patients “it’s too early for you to go back to work; your boss will just have to understand”; but I didn’t internalize the pressure these words created until I was the one receiving calls from exasperated clients wondering why I was not back to work yet.  My most frequently given piece of advice used to be “you MUST make time to do these exercises three times a day!  You HAVE to make yourself the priority!”  Truer words were never spoken; but until 6 months ago, I’d never personally experienced how difficult it is to fit in an extra hour or two a day for rehab exercises whilst juggling running a business, managing a household, and raising a family.  

I am now six months into my recovery; I’ve struggled with a number of unexpected post-operative complications, and I will likely need several more months of rehabilitation.  While I can’t say that I would be eager to go through this process again, I certainly feel like I’ve been given a unique opportunity to “wear the shoe on the other foot”.  Here are some of the lessons that I have come away with, as a physiotherapist-turned-patient:


    • The only person who can understand exactly what the patient is going through is the patient him/herself.  Physiotherapists need to have patience with the patient!  


  • Physiotherapists’ estimates of expected progress and recovery time frames are based on theoretical models of tissue healing and previous experience in treating other clients with the same condition.  It is unfair to blame the therapist if these time frames are not met, due to differences in individual circumstances.  Patients need to have patience with the Physiotherapist!
  • “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” is particularly relevant in the therapist/patient relationship.  For instance, patients who are having trouble complying with a home exercise program will likely respond better to a Physiotherapist who takes the time to explore with them why the exercises are not being done, rather than one who states: “it’s no skin off my nose if you don’t do your exercises”.  A little compassion can be a real motivator for a struggling patient.



For those of you reading who have found yourself in the position of being a patient;  I hope that you have had the support of a great health care team and that you’ve had as smooth a recovery as possible.  For those of you who are health care providers (particularly those of you who have never been patients); I challenge you to choose a random client from your caseload, and try to “act out” that person’s particular health care concern for a day.  It may sound like a corny experiment, but I can bet that you will see that patient in a whole new light.