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“What I Learn From Patients”
By Erin Riley, PT
Brain Injury, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Boston

Talia and Jesse - wedding pictureSpaulding has afforded me with incredible opportunities for career growth and educational advancement while working as a physical therapist on the brain injury service. I consider myself lucky to be surrounded by intelligent, giving, and motivated colleagues on a daily basis. However, the most meaningful aspect of my job is what I learn from the patients I work with. I truly believe a clinician can have all the professional success and achievements in the world, but what really translates into the quality of care we give is what we learn from the people we care for.

One of these people that specifically stands out in my mind and brings a smile to my face is Talia. Several years ago I first read her medical record before performing my physical therapy evaluation. I was accustomed to treating people with traumatic experiences and severe injuries, but I specifically remember reading her record and feeling more affected than usual. Perhaps it was because we were close in age or came from a similar background. She was traveling alone at night in an SUV on a Wyoming highway and lost control of her SUV. She was ejected from the car on impact with an obstacle in the road, and was not rescued for several hours. She sustained a serious brain injury along with multiple orthopaedic fractures and a collapsed lung. After three weeks in acute care, she was flown to Spaulding to be closer to her immediate family for rehabilitation.

After reading Talia’s list of injuries, I was expecting to walk into her room and encounter a severely impaired individual. I did not anticipate she would understand her surroundings or the purpose of our time together. She had a tracheostomy tube and would not be able to speak, so I also expected communication to be somewhat limited. The first thing Talia taught me was to never judge a patient by their record! Though she was not fully aware of her surroundings or situation, she was determined, and boy was she smiling! Her smile radiated throughout the entire 60 minutes that I assessed her balance, strength, and mobility. She could not communicate verbally with me, but her facial expressions sufficed to portray her determination. She worked extremely hard during that session, and throughout her month-long stay at Spaulding.

During Talia’s rehabilitation at Spaulding, she made rapid gains in cognition, physical capabilities, and ability to communicate. We learned more about her support network, including her fiance in Wyoming and her immediate family in Massachusetts who came to visit often. She was so motivated to return to her ranch in the Midwest and get married. Her motto was always, “I’ve gotta do it!!” when we presented her with any challenge. One of my favorite memories of treating Talia was the first time she did exercises in a kneeling position, followed by her collapsing in laughter when she realized how difficult it would be. But she got right back up and completed the task. That was her way, to laugh through adversity. Talia’s hard work demonstrated the fact that no matter how difficult the situation, a positive attitude and a good laugh are necessary to persevere.

Talia finished her journey at Spaulding by walking through the doors and returning home with family. She eventually returned to Wyoming, and is now married to her husband Jesse. Years later, we still keep in touch and I get to see the beautiful pictures of her wedding, working on the ranch, and the life she was able to return to. I have the privilege of knowing I was a part of her success, and am grateful for those lessons in positivity and determination she taught me during that time.

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