The human element: Connecting with patients and their stories

By Dana Goldman | Emory Physical Therapy | Nov. 30, 2015

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Illustration by Josée Bisaillon

Emory physical therapy student Katherine Voorhorst (15DPT) remembers the question that changed the course of treatment for her patient, a double amputee: "Will you read some of my poetry?" he asked.

That patient was Hugh "Eddie" Suggs, a former teacher who had been doing yardwork five years earlier when a log truck jumped a curb and ran over his legs. "I wasn't supposed to live," Suggs says. But after a drug-induced coma, 150 units of blood in 24 hours (a hospital record), loss of both legs, multiple surgeries, and skin grafts, he found himself not only alive but in physical therapy.

"I couldn't really move or hardly get out of bed," Suggs recalls. He was also struggling with post-traumatic stress, serious physical pain, and questions about his future. "I coped by developing personal relationships with my caregivers," he says. "My writing was a tool I used to try to do that."

Some of his physical therapists weren't interested in Suggs' life outside physical therapy, much less the inner life he expressed in his poetry. But Voorhorst had already shown interest in who the man was beyond his amputations. She'd been trained by Emory professors — including Sarah Blanton and Bruce Greenfield, among others — to see her patients as more than just a constellation of symptoms and to recognize physical therapy as more than just a scientific discipline. She regularly asked her patients about their days, their goals for therapy, their pets, and whatever she learned mattered to them — including poetry.

The next session, Suggs brought in a poem he'd written about the truck accident in which he'd lost both legs.

"I listened and we cried for a minute," Voorhorst recalls. "And then he looked at me and said, 'All right, let's do this PT.' Afterward, he told me it was the most productive therapy session he'd had — and he'd been doing this for three years."

That productive therapy session couldn't have happened without Voorhorst showing personal interest in Suggs.

And now Emory's Division of Physical Therapy is working to ensure that connecting with patients becomes the norm, not the exception. It's part of an effort to explore the many ways that humans experience life and make sense of it — and to link the humanities in general to physical therapy in particular. Students are learning about careful listening and the importance of understanding a patient's needs, values, and goals. Students are searching for the meaning that patients ascribe to their illness and life paths.

Faculty created this initiative to foster reflective practice and patient-centered care. After all, the effectiveness of physical therapy is clearly linked to the strength of the relationship between a patient and a physical therapist, says Bruce Greenfield, PT, PhD, associate professor of rehab medicine. "We have to appreciate that at, its essence, health care is a relational practice. You're dealing with human beings," he says. "When you're caring for human beings you have to learn to treat the patient not as an object to be diagnosed, but as a human being to be cared for, with feelings, needs, fears, expectations, and goals."

Associate Professor Sarah Blanton, PT, DPT, NCS, agrees. "Hearing each other's stories is a diagnostic tool, and it's also a way to create strength in the therapeutic relationship," she says. "A good therapist may help the patient with his goal, but a really excellent therapist understands the meaning behind the goals." It's one thing to help a patient with stroke relearn how to change her child's diaper; it's another, Blanton says, to understand that a patient desperately wants to regain her sense of identity as a mother.

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