Health Masters PT January 2018

W hat an I njured L ittle G irl T aught M e A bout P ain


side from the optimism and anticipation that comes with each new year, the beginning of 2018 has me thinking a lot about the roots of my physical therapy career. Though I love what I do — today, more than ever — and am confident that I picked the right path in life, I wasn’t always so sure. My first job right out of college tested me in ways I never could have anticipated. But it also helped me form a central component of the approach that helped me become the therapist I am today.

those days was incredibly painful, as we removed their dead tissue and delicately replaced it with living, growing tissue. I grit my teeth and put her through the treatments with my team, telling myself that, despite the pain we were inevitably inflicting on this poor kid, it was all for her own good. And, of course, it was — but one thing she said stopped me cold. During a break in the treatment, she turned her head, looked me right in the eye, and told me “You remind me of my daddy.” It felt like the floor fell out from beneath me. Reluctantly, I asked her why? What about me reminded her of her daddy? To this day, I can still see every detail of her face in my mind as she said that. In the moment, I questioned everything. I was there, hurting that little girl as bad as her own abusive father — why was I doing this? Did I really belong in the field at all? Back at home, I couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d said. But after some thought, I realized a fundamental truth in the innocence of her perspective. Despite whatever noble goals or outcomes we’d achieved during her treatment, we’d hurt that little girl. I realized, no matter what my patients were trying to make it through, I never wanted to inflict that kind of pain again. I didn’t want to put my patients through agony just to get them to the light at the end of the tunnel. Today, I tell patients all the time that Health Masters is not a “no-pain- no-gain” shop. I try to intertwine every aspect of our clinic with a spirit of compassion and empathy. We do our very best to eliminate pain without causing more first. To me and my team, mitigating pain in a positive way is of the utmost importance. In many ways, it was a promise I made to myself while looking that poor little girl in the eye — one that’s shaped my most basic approach throughout my entire career. “Because you hurt me.”

Almost immediately after finishing school, I was thrust into a position that, I can say now frankly, I was completely unprepared for. In college, I’d received quite a bit of training treating burn patients, so when an opportunity arose to be the therapy director for the burn center at the top of Sun Towers hospital here in El Paso, I jumped at it. As detailed, complicated

Today, I tell patients all the time that Health Masters is not a “no- pain-no-gain” shop. I try to intertwine every aspect of our clinic with a spirit of compassion and empathy.

work with a lot of tangible benefit to the patients, I thought I’d love coming into the hospital each day. And for the most part, I did. But one particular patient challenged my very perception of the discipline I’d chosen. One day, a patient came into the burn center, a little girl who must have been no more than 8 or 9 years old. When I read her case file, I was shocked, but it still couldn’t have prepared me for when I saw her injuries firsthand. There were vicious burns all the way up and down her backside, spreading all the way from her bottom to her feet. Apparently, her father had become enraged and, after superheating the water in the bathtub, he held his daughter down in the water, despite her desperate attempts to get out. Though he’d been sent to jail, the consequences of his actions remained — there in front of me, in the surgical suite of the burn ward. It was unthinkable.

–Louis Zuniga

So now, this beautiful, innocent little girl who’d been through so much trauma required our aid. Regrettably, the way burn treatment went in

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