Thursday, May 9, 2013

Inspiration From an Unlikely Source

Every Wednesday morning, as I drive to work, I listen on the radio to the man who changed my life.  As a pediatric physical therapist, it is hard to see that I owe my life to a 74 year-old sports contributor on National Public Radio, but I do.

When I was in 6th grade (circa 1987-88), my grandmother received an envelope from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, asking for a donation.  Included in the request was a book called, Alex: The Life of a Child, written by Frank Deford.  I was sick, and over at my grandparents, so I started reading the book.  It was about a little girl, Alex, who had and died from Cystic Fibrosis.  Alex was born in 1971, which is when my oldest brother was born.  I was immediately fascinated by the disease, as it seemed to effect a little girl like me, with a love of dresses and brown hair in pigtails.  Other than cancer, which no one would talk about, it was the first time I realized that kids could get sick, and not live normal, healthy, long lives.  I did several research papers on it throughout grade school and high school.  After reading that book, my life had direction.  I put aside my aspirations of becoming a professional dancer (plus, it was pretty clear that I was not going to make the minimum height requirement to be a Rockette), and decided to go into medicine.

(I had no idea that Frank Deford was a famous writer for Sports Illustrated.  He has gone on since then to have an illustrious career in sports journalism, as a novelist, and public speaker, including his weekly commentary on Morning Edition.)

The first few years after that, I was pretty firm that I was going to go into research and find a cure for CF.  My mom kind of sensed that perhaps I was not really a lab-research-type of person, and urged me to look elsewhere in the medical field.  She rationally put it that I would not be a full-fledged research doctor for about 17 years, and didn't I really hope that a cure for CF was found by then?  I didn't disagree, and still often thought about becoming a doctor (except for that brief period Sophomore year, where I dabbled with being a writer,but, oh wait, still trying that one out...).

I don't know when the self-doubt came in about becoming a doctor, but I changed gears slightly into physical therapy.  I knew that physical therapy was integral for people with CF, although chest PT has now been replaced by nifty equipment.  I think being a PT has been a great fit for me, although there are still days when I wish I had gone to med school.  I'm fairly certain now that I would have made it.  I'm also fairly certain that I have no business being in a lab.

[I do also have to give credit to a neighbor for indirectly helping me find the specific field of Physical Therapy.  His profound experience led me to say, "I want to do THAT!  That is how I want to help people."  However, I don't think I would have been open to anything in the medical field if I had not become so invested after reading Alex: The Life of a Child.]

So, 25 years later, while there is still no cure for CF, the treatment is a lot better.  Alex Deford died in 1980, at the age of 9.  At that time, the average lifespan was to the late teens.  As of 2008, in the US, the median life span is 37.4 years.  It is still not long enough.  I am exactly 37.4 years old, and I cannot imagine being at the end of my life.

One of the things that so struck me in the book was when Mr. Deford commented that because his daughter was born in 1971 and died in the beginning of 1980, she was never counted in a Census.  I feel that his words, his experiences, his daughter's brief life really provided the direction for me to travel in my own life.  So, this little girl, the age of my own son now, who was never counted, certainly has had a profound effect on a whole lot of people.


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