My Journey to Physical Therapy with Heart

When I graduated from Rollins College in 2002 with my B.A. at 22 years old, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had majored in Vocal Performance and Composition and minored in Writing and Economics. My interests have always been all over the map. With no real direction, I moved back home with my parents.

Rollins College Volleyball Team 2000

In my quest for a career path I spent a lot of time thinking about the things that were important to me. Starting around the age of 12,  I had identified myself as a volleyball player. How would I keep that in my life? What would it be like to transition from being a collegiate athlete to…well, what would I be? Did this mean I was no longer an athlete? How I would I keep physical activity in my life now that I could choose, instead of being told how many hours a day I would be in the gym, on the track, or on the court?

I turned to yoga. It kind of felt like doing a 180 degree turn in the other direction. Volleyball is a team sport: fast paced, competitive, and explosive. Yoga allowed me to slow down, learn to focus inward, and work on myself. I found an Anusara yoga studio close to my parent’s home and started taking classes. I knew very little about yoga at that time, but I knew the classes at that studio were special, and yoga felt important. I remember leaving there feeling like I had experienced something spiritual that gave me a newfound sense of connectedness to myself and my community, which was very comforting.

Yoga Group Photo

Comfort and connectedness were something I was yearning for then because that was the same year my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I feared losing her. But she has a fighting spirit. She was interested in seeing M.D.’s, nutritionists, and alternative medicine practitioners. We spent time going to doctor’s appointments together- each practitioner contradicting the next with their recommendations and suggestions. It was scary, and confusing, and infuriating. Why wasn’t there an easy way to gather information and make informed decisions about your health? How do you choose who to trust? Why did I feel like the doctors weren’t listening, or that they didn’t care?

I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I figured to get through all of the chemotherapy treatments and the surgeries, she would need to be in the best shape possible, and I knew how to exercise. So we started going to the gym together and then afterward I would massage her to make her muscles feel better. (Mostly so she wouldn’t curse me the next day from being so sore!) Partner stretching and self massage with a volleyball was something I was very familiar with and it always made me feel less sore after workouts. So I did what I knew. It came naturally and easily to me, and I enjoyed trying to help.

But as comfortable as I felt with the massage and exercise components, I didn’t know much else. I found that I was spending a lot of time researching dietary changes for optimal health, how to improve general fitness, and self care techniques to help people feel good about their body and in their body. I was concerned about my mother’s well being: physically, emotionally, spiritually, internally, externally. I wanted to understand how to help her navigate all the aspects of healing she would need get through. I spent my down time reading about it and I found it fascinating.

As a recent college graduate, I had been substitute teaching for the county school system. I had fallen into a permanent substitute position as a Physical Education teacher at a Title 1 middle school and quickly discovered that teaching in that capacity was not for me. (God bless the middle school teachers of the world). I found myself thinking, what kind of career would allow me to spend time doing things I actually enjoyed? I really liked reading and learning about health and wellness, and I liked helping my mom work out and making her feel better. What kind of job was related to that kind of enjoyment? There was a massage school in my hometown of Sarasota, Florida that had a great reputation and I decided to sign up for night classes.

Little did I know, that decision would end up being the best educational choice of my life. 8 Months later, I had 3 jobs as a massage therapist. I was hired at a chiropractic office, a massage clinic owned by another massage therapist, and I was on call at IMG Academies. I imagined in each of these scenarios that I would be working closely with the chiropractor, the massage therapist that owned the clinic, physical therapists at IMG… but collaboration was nowhere to be found. I thought, “Well, maybe I could start my own business and choose to work with people who were interested in collaboration.” So I started making house calls to build my own clientele. I knew I wanted a name for the business that meant something to me. I had looked up my name in a baby book once and it said Jennifer meant “white wave.” I had never really liked that my name was the most common name, ever, in the history of ever, but I do love the water. When I read that, it was the first time I had ever identified with my own name. And so, Whitewave Bodywork was born.

I read a description of Osteopathic Medicine shortly after I started my massage career and I felt like it was describing my philosophy of how medicine should be practiced. I immediately thought, “That is my next step. I need to become an osteopath.” So I went back to school at the local community college to get all the prerequisites I was missing from undergrad to get in to medical school. After two years of classes, and taking that dreaded MCAT, I applied but I didn’t get in. I don’t take no for an answer well, so I went back and took additional classes and applied again the next year. I still didn’t get in. I realized after that second letter of non-acceptance that I wasn’t heart broken. I felt more like, “Oh. Ok… Next.” And it was only then that I realized I was working incredibly hard toward a goal I didn’t really care if I achieved.

I thought to myself, “Maybe being a massage therapist is what I am supposed to be, and building my business is what I am supposed to be doing. Maybe, finding find peace with where I am right now should be my goal.”

I took as many continuing education classes as I could. I hired other massage therapists to collaborate. (Alisha is the lone survivor from that time. She has been an incredible asset through this process. I am so lucky to have found her!) I loved my career, but after 6 years of immersion, as hard as I tried I wasn’t able to make a living that didn’t feel like a struggle.

I got the itch to go back to school again and as I researched my options, the most seamless transition for my business I could imagine would be to get my Doctorate in Physical Therapy. What I loved about massage therapy was trying to figure out how to get people out of pain through soft tissue mobilization. It feels like detective work. I saw physical therapy as a huge step toward becoming the best detective I could be. I imagined with a larger set of “tools” or techniques for evaluating and treating people, I would be great at what I have come to feel is my calling. I also thought I would be stellar in school because I already knew so much. (Interject wild maniacal laughter).

Graduate school was hard. The concepts I was learning in the Physical Therapy curriculum seemed so theoretical. The items I felt were important in evaluation and treatment were gone over so quickly that I wasn’t sure I understood how I was supposed to apply them. I realized how different this path was than I thought it was going to be. It was like I was headed in a direction that I hadn’t anticipated, and it didn’t feel like one that I wanted to go in. This realization gave me massive anxiety as I was investing illogical amounts of time and money into something that didn’t feel like it was in line with my values.

Physical Therapy Graduation

Fast forward 4 years later, I did it. I had graduated. I was now a Doctor of Physical Therapy. I was proud of myself for finishing what I had set out to do and for attaining my Doctorate. This seemed like a big accomplishment in my life. I was looking forward to getting a good foundation in outpatient orthopedic physical therapy before I went out on my own again. So I started working in a large outpatient facility that saw a variety of different patients with diagnoses all over the board. I chose a place that allowed me 1-on-1 time with patients because I knew that would be important for me.  What I didn’t account for was the amount of documentation I would be doing. This is just how the medical system works when insurance becomes involved. I am an idealist it seems.

In my massage business, I was used to being hands on with my clients for a whole hour (or more) and I scheduled myself 30 minutes in between to answer their questions, square away payment, print out information they might need, and write my notes. This was all of a sudden a luxury. In order to maintain my sanity, I realized I had to change the way I practiced in order to work within this model. I had to cut out some of my hands-on time, and start making different decisions about what I did with my patients. It was only then that it occurred to me that the doctors I had come across in my time weren’t not listening because they didn’t care, they were just caught in a system that didn’t afford them enough time. I mean, I was being given 45 minutes to listen to these people. The physicians were being given 15 minutes. We are all just doing the best we can with what we are given in an insurance driven system.

Feeling forced to fit this mold was difficult for me but it taught me a valuable lesson. I value manual therapy so much because I have seen how it can change pain symptoms and gait patterns for so long. How could I possibly just let that go by the wayside!? And then I considered how often as a massage therapist I hear, “But I can’t do this to myself!” or “I can’t take you home with me! What will I do when you are gone?” While that feels good to my ego, providing someone with only manual therapy, now feels like breeding dependance, and the ultimate goal for me is truly to teach people how to help themselves. Manual “hands-on” therapies and exercises that require hands-on attention to complete correctly are still very important to me. But an integral part of the motor learning process is repetition. Independent performance of an activity allows the person to truly integrate that motor learning and instill confidence that they can safely and effectively help themselves. And that’s what it’s really all about.

We all need both. Sometimes, especially in the beginning, we need someone to physically help us, but when the acuity has passed, we need to be given the tools to take matters into our own hands. Verbal instruction alone almost never translates into proper performance of an activity. I have seen the exact same instructions translated 100 different ways from how I meant it, which has been an invaluable learning lesson for me.

As I have gone from a Bodyworker to a Physical Therapist, honing my verbal cueing skills has been an important part of the process. Enrolling in an Anusara Teacher training at Garden of the Heart Yoga Center here in Sarasota proved to be just the thing I needed to blend the two together. I have personally benefitted a lot from the practice of yoga over the years. The verbal cues for proper alignment that Anusara teachers use have been so helpful for me in learning how to protect my joints. The calming effect that the yoga classes have had on my nervous system (in times of high anxiety and otherwise) have been profound. The spiritual philosophy woven into the classes brings me a sense of unity and connectedness that leaves me feeling whole on my own and yet knowing that I am a part of something bigger. I want that wholistic sense of well being for my patients, and for everyone that is seeking it.

Combining bodywork, corrective exercise, and yoga feels like Physical Therapy with heart.

I believe that combination to be the path to a true sense of wellbeing. I want to be that person in your healthcare team that you feel is really listening and has your wholistic wellness- mind, body and spirit- at heart. I envision this blog as a place you can come to gain knowledge about this machine you live in called your body, and learn tools you can use to improve the quality of your life. I want to make it easy for you to gather information and get answers to your questions from someone you trust. My intention is to address some of the common issues I see as a physical therapist and as a massage therapist. I will do my best to explain things clearly and articulately, and to provide you with visual and written instructions, videos, and research articles so you can make informed decisions about your health.

Whitewave Bodywork now has a boutique style space within Wellpower MD, a concierge medical practice led by Dr. Andrea Kreithen. She specializes in Functional Medicine and Alisha and I get the opportunity to work closely with her in the development of treatment plans for the patient’s we share. This collaborative relationship is something we have long dreamed of having. It finally feels like we are right where we are supposed to be, doing exactly what we have been called to do.

And so, on behalf of our team, I welcome you to Whitewave Bodywork. May The Current take you to optimal health.

Jennifer Clarkson DPT, L/CNMT

*Below you will find affiliate links. These are books I’ve read that have impacted my life in a positive way.

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