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I Failed a Physical Therapy Practical. It Made me a Better PT.

by Julie McGee, PT, DPT


Growing up, I was never very rebellious. I never got in trouble in school. I did well in all of my classes, went to college, and did well there. After college, I took a few years off and worked while figuring out what to do next.

Then I went to physical therapy school.

Physical therapy school is tough.

For me, PT school was more than challenging. It was almost impossible.

One of my classmates accurately described the first week of school like having a ton of bricks dropped on you. We had reading assigned daily that totaled between 50-100 pages. Not a week went by where we didn’t have at least 2 of the following: a paper due, an exam, or a practical.

Then there were the more casual assignments, “ So class, make up a treatment plan for this paper patient for our next meeting.” Great, add that to the ton of bricks...a ton of bricks, where I have to maintain a B average.

During my past experiences with school, I knew that if I showed up to class, followed the syllabus, and spent some time in the library studying, I was guaranteed success.

Since I never felt that I could keep up with the workload, I always felt a step or two behind and never seemed to be able to keep up with the workload. On the weekends I would try to catch up, but then more assignments, practicals and tests would get piled on.

I didn’t sleep much either. Work-life balance in PT school was not a priority for me.

But I was fortunate enough to have a solid study group of about 7 classmates. We would meet up almost daily and study at the library, coffee shops, and each other’s apartments.

If one person didn’t understand a concept, the others would try to explain it to them. We also commiserated about the fact that we never felt caught up on our work, and that this workload was unending.

One mistake and I failed a physical therapy practical.

On the day of the physical therapy practical that I failed, my classmate and I were going over some last-minute skills.

We were somewhere in our first year, and the practical was the evaluation and treatment of an acute care inpatient. We were taking each other’s blood pressure in supine and seated. Then doing manual muscle testing, balance testing, memory testing, and we were very tired and frustrated.

Honestly, I hadn’t prepared much for this practical because I had so many other things to do.

I went into the practical with a professor playing the role of a patient. I was a little nervous, and was stumbling through things a little more than usual due to my lack of preparation. I started off with a brief interview, asking my “patient” if they had any pain, asking them about their living situation, and then taking their vitals.

I tested my “patient’s” arm strength, and then helped them to sit up. All of a sudden, I got stuck and was unable to remember what to do next. My professor/patient pointed to my name tag and said, “We are going to have to talk about this later.”

In my fear of being unprepared, I had forgotten that my friend and I had decided to switch name tags. I felt flushed. She stopped the practical there and told me that I did not pass the practical that day, but could have another chance to pass the practical next week.

I felt horrible. I walked out of the classroom and took the bus home. Later on that day, I called my classmate to coordinate getting our nametags back. I explained that I had failed the practical; he mentioned that the same thing had happened to him. Even though switching nametags seemed like a mutual decision, I felt compelled to apologize.

The aftermath.

I failed. I was a failure.

I had never failed at anything before. I had never really gotten in trouble at school before. How was I going to explain this to other people?

What if my failing the practical was the start of me failing out of PT school? How would I explain this to my family? All of my other classmates felt relief at having passed the practical, and were moving on to the next thing. I still had this practical hanging over my head, and then the upcoming papers, exams, and projects looming in the distance.

I went through the motions of taking a subjective where I asked about pain level, and living situation, taking vitals, doing manual muscle testing, checking off the boxes.

After I was done, my professor (the same who had caught me with another name tag) told me that I had passed. During our post practical discussion she asked, “Do you know why providing PT to medical inpatients is so important?...To prevent pressure ulcers and DVTs.”

The big picture about physical therapy.

Since starting PT school, I had so much information and so many tasks thrown at me that I had gotten bogged down with the details.

Today, as a treating PT, I get bombarded with information. Whether I am going through pages of notes from the hospital, taking a patient’s subjective, or reading a journal article, it can be overwhelming.

While some of this information is very important and should not be ignored, there are a lot of details.

There are a lot of topics to cover in PT school. As a PT student, one is asked to take in a lot of information in a short period. While students can feel overwhelmed at times, it is important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. By being able to do so, you will be gaining another valuable tool to use in your career.

Getting into physical therapy school is challenging. The majority of students in PT school have maintained a high grade point average and been highly successful throughout their academic years.

We are used to success, and we are accustomed to doing things correctly. One might even go so far as to say that physical therapy students are perfectionists.

Do not lose sight of the bigger picture.

Failing a practical does not mean you'll fail as a PT.

Failure is not the end of the world; it's an opportunity to take a look at the bigger picture.

I was also lucky that my professor was willing to jump in and help me out.

If you have failed at a practical, or exam, or are afraid that you are going to fail, I encourage you to seek out the help of your professors.

While at times they may seem as though they are out to get you, your professors actually want to help you to succeed. They may not be able to do much about your workload, and make that pesky exam go away, but they can help you to better understand concepts that you are having difficulty with.

Know when to ask for help.

Realizing when you are in trouble and need help is also a very important skill to have as a PT.

Even now, as a successful PT with nearly 10 years of experience, I run into issues where I need some guidance. Instead of feeling as though I am being taken advantage of or drowning, I try to look to someone to turn to for help.

This may be a supervisor, a colleague, HR personnel, or another person in a supporting role. Just like asking a professor for help, it is best to be clear about what your needs are. No question is too silly, or dumb.

In the end you will feel better about what you are doing, and will actually be a better PT for having asked.

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