By Zoya Saltonstall
Every career begins somewhere with a physical space and a set of people. Together, these make moments in time. The several thousand square feet where I spent the bulk of my first 7 years of my career as a physical therapist is dark, as the clinic was recently re-located to another location. If those now empty clinic walls could speak, they would have stories of laughter, tears. Of successes and disappointments. Good news of progress, of healing and health. And struggles- challenges which are so very real in this field of healing. Therapists digging to find the right words or the right cues.
I grew up in Kodiak, volunteered at the local hospital in high school and decided then that I wanted to be a PT. I didn't intend to come back home after college. It was an accident. Really. Physical Therapy graduation came at a time when Medicare had dramatically cut their rehab re-imbursement which meant cuts in jobs for PT. There was a job in Kodiak, however. It was a start. I packed up my green subaru and drove 10 days across the country. My friend Ben came along and did the bulk of the driving. He had never been West of Buffalo New York and every mountain range seemed larger than the last.
I cried spontaneously several times during that drive. The beauty of the majestic mountains and returning to Alaska brought me me tears of joy. They were also tears of "what am I getting myself into?". I was already missing the security bubble of graduate school living. What was I doing going home to Kodiak? Ben re-assured me that it was the right thing. And reminded me I was lucky to have a job.
We took the classic photos at the "welcome to Alaska" sign. We had arrived. Ben flew home to New York on a one way ticket, grateful for seeing Alaska and the new lands along the way. And me grateful for help with the drive.
Several years later, here I was practicing physical therapy. Surprisingly happy living back in Kodiak. Appreciating the moments in the parallel bars guiding clients with the cues "lift knee...shift weight...." Helping people take their first steps after a stroke. Realizing the imperfection in the healing process. Learning from my mentors and co-workers. Figuring people out. And figuring myself out. Going home and thinking about my next days case load. Putting in extra hours if needed. Feeling at times I should have done something differently. Being a good worker bee that every new grad wants to be. Being humbled. Daily.
Sometimes I want to write my earliest clients apology notes. Seriously. Every algorithm in the book can't fully prepare you for the reality of helping people heal. People are complex and unique. There was patience on their part, on my part. Learning how to become a healer is a sticky business. Painful at times as you mess up, then grow and try learn from it all. And sometimes you look back and think about what you could've done differently. And other times, you just feel so blessed to have time with such amazing souls in the world.
Walking by the vacant, dark space of what used to be a maze of treatment rooms and exercise equipment, I squint, trying to look beyond the darkness. I still see faces and smiles of clients and co-workers in my mind. There are moments frozen in time. The lights are bright, and there is a younger me in a pastel shirt. I am in the parallel bars working with a client who is is re-learning how to walk. My co-workers are cheering us on. Together we laugh and go forward step by step, hand in hand.
Kodiak resident Zoya Saltonstall is a mother of two and a physical therapist. She loves black labs and chocolate.