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Why I decided to trade my claw hammer for a reflex hammer

After completing my first month working as a qualified physiotherapist, I decided to write a blog to look at the change I made from working as a tradesman in the construction industry to becoming a musculoskeletal physiotherapist for a leading Manchester-based private practice.

I’m going to think about:

  • Why I decided I needed a change in career
  • How I decided to choose physiotherapy as a new profession
  • What differences and similarities exist between the two roles, and
  • What obstacles did I face in making the transition

Being a builder

I remember it being a rainy afternoon in Huddersfield (if you haven’t been, don’t) and I was finishing another shift working as a self-employed joiner for the small family ran construction business that we had set up a few years previously.

I had cement in my hair, sawdust in my eyes and a splinter in my thumb, and was generally feeling a bit sorry for myself. I really enjoyed my job normally. I found using the different skills and techniques really rewarding and I got the chance to work within some really varied and challenging projects… however, I was beginning to feel that I hadn’t ever properly ‘tested’ myself.  

I had increasingly started to think about a change in career but the decision seemed so huge and I didn’t even know where to start. I was 27 years old and thinking that I might even be too old to retrain and after spending 10+ years away from education I was worried that I may even struggle with the workload etc. You can’t teach an old(ish) dog new tricks and all that…

Luckily at this time, I was receiving some physiotherapy (I forgot to mention I had an aching back as well as the splinter in my thumb and cement in my hair), which enabled me to see at close quarters what the job involved.

I remember being impressed with the amount of knowledge that the physiotherapist had and the way we were able to deal with my issues simply by stretching, strengthening and basically by moving (as opposed to not moving and taking painkillers).

As I got to know him more I questioned him loads about the training and his experiences. The more I heard about it, the more I realised just how challenging and rewarding it could be.

Over the next few months I started to seriously consider taking the plunge and eventually (probably after another rainy day with a bad back) I sent off my enrolment for an Access to Higher Education in Physiotherapy course at The Manchester College.DSC_0505rBecoming a student

I was accepted and after enrolment, we were briefed regarding the structure of the course.

We would have an exam every two weeks and to be successful to gain a place on a university degree course we would have to gain over 15 distinction grades (from just 18 exams!), as the physiotherapy courses are notoriously difficult to get on to.

I was dead nervous. I hadn’t done an exam since I was a 16 year old with a terrible curtained haircut.

Our first exam was 10 days later and the tutor had said that whoever scored a distinction would get a letter of recommendation to the university to bolster their application. I thought I had as much chance of failing as I did getting a distinction, which was 75% and above. I revised as hard as I could and thought it went ok. The next day I found out I had got 98%!

Then I realised that I could probably do it and I was now a proper geek.

I ended getting a place at Huddersfield University for the BSc in Physiotherapy which was to last for three years.

At the beginning, I found the step up from college to Uni difficult, but I worked as hard as I possibly could and saw the whole experience as a big challenge.

The way the course was structured was so that you are assessed in numerous different methods, including written assignments, group presentations, research projects and practical exams.

You, therefore, needed to use a wide range of different skills in order to be successful, and the variation in the ways that you were assessed provided constant challenges and kept things fresh.

Then during the course, there were your clinical placements interspersed within all the studying, in which we were allocated different areas of physiotherapy and were graded on our performance within these areas over the course of five weeks.

These were probably the toughest parts but definitely the most rewarding.

I was lucky to have some hugely interesting placements, including Paediatric Intensive Care, Adult Acute Stroke Wards, Musculoskeletal Outpatients and Intermediate Neurology Rehabilitation. I was able to come into contact with some unbelievably inspiring people and see some amazing work take place.

It made me realise just how varied and unique physiotherapy could be and I knew I had made the right choice to retrain.

Eventually, I graduated last summer with 1st Class Honours and even received an award for the best overall grade in my year group, which is probably the first award I have won since I won the All Saints Primary School Sack Race in 1992 (and there were only 3 people in the race).

After some well-earned time away travelling in South/Central America I decided to put my efforts into working within private practice over in Manchester. I had seen an ace-sounding role advertised for Physio.co.uk, who I had heard were a great firm and was lucky enough to get an interview for the role and be successful.  DSC_0554Being a physio – how does it compare?

It’s only when I look back that I realise how far I have come really, as the world of physiotherapy and healthcare couldn’t be more different from the building industry. The way in which people communicate, the nature of your working days, the types of problems that you encounter or experiences that you end up having are massively different, but on further reflection, I think this background probably did help me to become a better physio.

For example, I feel that designing and building load-bearing structures have prepared me for studying how a patient moves and trying to work out what components may be at fault. This really helps me to understand the various forces used during human movements, such as the transmission of loads, centres of gravity and the way different levels are used- which in turn helps with both diagnosing and providing methods of treatment.

I also think that having ‘hands-on’ experience working with such varied materials and tools have helped me to effectively carry out the manual techniques that we perform on a daily basis. As a result, I feel like I can imagine what effect I am trying to have upon a particular structure and then adapt my handling or position to obtain it, which I think is actually really quite similar to when working with building materials.  

My previous role also placed a massive emphasis on continuously anticipating and solving problems, and the sequencing and structuring of works were essential when ensuring projects are carried out successfully. I definitely think this has prepared me for structuring the different types of assessments, as well as being able to cope with the changing presentations of patients during sessions.

I also definitely feel that whole the process of retraining was made a little easier by the fact that I’m slightly older and have had so many experiences away from physiotherapy. As a result, I feel that during high pressured situations (ie an exam at Uni, a job interview or a difficult event at work), I am able to use past experiences to help contextualise things and not let them affect me too drastically unless it is absolutely necessary.     

There are also loads of ways in which physiotherapy doesn’t compare with my previous career and as a result, I have had to work particularly hard to improve these aspects…

One of the main challenges has been the process of self-reflection. Within construction, there is definitely a huge absence of accepting responsibility for your actions and ‘admitting’ any areas for improvement within your practice (the amount of times I have blamed a painter for making my poorly hung doors look bad…).

At first, I found the process of reflecting quite difficult to get on board with. Within the building trade if you make an error then your initial feelings are often embarrassment and your next action is usually to conceal it, whereas within healthcare we try to highlight and analyse the aspects of our practice where we could potentially perform better. This then allows us to think about them logically and plan how these aspects can be improved.

I have found that this process of self-reflecting and addressing areas for improvement has massively helped me to become better at what I do.

Another challenging aspect of the transition was the way in which communication is used differently between the two roles.

Within building projects the communication between the different trades and the interaction with various clients is hugely important, however, the way in which this information is exchanged is totally different.

Within healthcare the emphasis upon effective interaction is massive, and effective interpretation of the different types of communication is key to performing the job well.

This can include the adaptation of language depending on the patient and their needs, the effective use of written communication, and also an understanding of subtle non-verbal types of interaction (ie ‘body language’).

I found this aspect really interesting and I feel like I actually adapted quite well considering the huge difference between the two roles (I’m wincing as I recall some of the more ‘colourful’ language that I may have banded around whilst on building sites…). These skills were definitely tested even more during my Paediatric and Acute Neurology placements, where you had to be really creative with how you obtained and delivered information, due to either the age or cognitive ability of the patients.

This helped me to understand how much of an effect that decent communication skills can have upon your practice and the way in which you are perceived, and I now feel that I appreciate how much even subtle cues can convey different types of information.DSC_0554dWas it all worth it?

Definitely. It was really challenging but so worth it, and I have had some great experiences so far that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to encounter if I stayed in my previous line of work

I feel really glad that I made the decision to retrain as a physio. It was definitely a difficult decision to make but it’s probably my biggest achievement to date (the 1992 Sack Race was a pretty big deal actually, but that was a long time ago). It’s a job that I feel kinda proud to say that I do.

And now I don’t have cement in my hair.