“I never thought I would walk again.”

These words left me speechless. During an internship in an inpatient rehabilitation facility, I had been working with someone who recently underwent a transfemoral amputation. He was in a motor vehicle accident that nearly killed him. We worked through many periods of frustration and pain during our physical therapy sessions, finally seeing a reward after walking with a prosthetic, similar to this one.

As he walked, I focused on the quality of his gait, seeing that he needed some correction with his hip circumduction and excessive stance width. He didn’t care. Even as our patient took these steps, I felt as if I was reducing a life-changing moment to a slew of arbitrary jargon. He just walked without crutches for the first time since his life turned upside down. Not only that — I was also trying to pay attention to another patient and document both sessions despite how important these steps were to him. After our session, he hugged me and thanked me, and the room got really dusty really fast.

That was a special moment for me. It reminded me to fight the desensitization that comes with being a health professional. It’s tough to remember the importance of each moment when you’re also keeping track of other patients in the clinic, staying on top of the amount of time left in the session, and documenting efficiently throughout the day. This was one of the most important events in this person’s life, yet I was trying to juggle a handful of other tasks instead of offering my entire self to our patient. Perhaps I will be more mindful in the future as I continue to develop my clinical skills. On the other hand, perhaps I should be afraid of desensitization getting even worse with experience.

When I saw the relief and contentment on our patient’s face, I felt that every hour of studying and every tuition dollar was worth it. It is a profound privilege to be a therapist, and our patient reminded me of this in a huge way. Even though he probably had no idea, he taught me a simple, invaluable lesson: If I’m afraid of losing touch with people, then I should be more present with people. 

We should ask ourselves whether our systems in health care allow us to be truly present. It’s easy to blame problems on declining reimbursement, productivity demands, and documentation, but we need to challenge ourselves to do our best with what we have. If something about our health care system is truly interfering with our ability to deliver patient-centered care, however, then it’s time for a new system. What is more, we need to hold each other accountable and encourage one another to keep the patient at the center of our priorities.

Ultimately, this story was also a reminder of why I applied to physical therapy school in the first place. Of course I value the science behind physical medicine and rehabilitation, but I didn’t pursue the physical therapy profession because of science alone. If you are a health professional (or studying to become one), why did you choose your career? I chose this profession because of the opportunity to practice evidence-based medicine while building relationships with people. I chose a career in rehabilitation not just because of the evidence about pain, but because of the evidence about hope. “Hope is important,” as Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”

The next time I see someone take their first steps with a prosthesis (or get out of bed without assistance, or return to the basketball court, or play with their grandchildren again), I’ll try to remember that I’m not just in the business of rehabilitation. I’m in the business of hope.

Are you?