There are about 76 million people in the so-called Baby Boomer generation -- those born between 1946 and 1964 -- who in bygone years attempted to defy the odds of aging, but now are coming to grips with the fact that their once-youthful bodies are, in fact, human after all.
That means health-care professions such as physical therapists, for which Kim Hargrove studied and trained six years, are the wave of the future. And it's a sizeable career wave, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting her field will grow "much faster than average" by the year 2020.
With nearly 200,000 physical therapists already on the job, it is estimated an increase of 39 percent, or about 77,000 more, will be needed nationwide to help not only Baby Boomers -- but people of all ages, including weekend and high-school athletes -- mend their injured knees, shoulders, hips and other ailing joints.
Hargrove, 33, has been on the staff of The Hughston Clinic nearly seven years. She is among 10 at the Columbus facility that is well known and respected for its orthopedic surgery, treatment and care.
The Columbus resident talked recently with the Ledger-Enquirer about her job, its challenges, the rehabilitation skills involved and the satisfaction she gets from it. The interview has been edited for length and clarity:
Why did you decide to become a physical therapist?
I had always been interested in doing something in the medical field, and this was offered with the science background I wanted, but with fairly normal hours that I could balance my personal life and my career.
Did job security and great pay factor into your decision?
The salary is good for the amount of time you spend in school. Going into other areas of medicine, such as medical school, you obviously have to spend several more years finishing your education.
Each hospital has a staff of physical therapists, each outpatient clinic, each nursing home, and the home-health agencies in town. All of those are going to have a staff of physical therapists. What you are seeing with employment opportunities for physical therapists is that there's a very broad range of settings that you can work in with different populations. Ours is certainly a specialty area in orthopedics, but that's a very small portion of physical therapy as a whole.
Did you want to be a doctor?
It crossed my mind at some point, but it was never something that I actively pursued because of the time commitment in school and then what can sometimes be crazy hours, being on call and things like that. I didn't want to have those kinds of career demands later in life.
Any other health-care professions you contemplated?
I considered athletic training, because I wanted to work with athletes in a sports setting. But the salary is definitely not as competitive and the job availability is much less. Then you've got the fact that you're working almost all evenings and weekends.
Do you get a lot of high school sports-related injuries here?
We get a very broad range. We see all orthopedics, but I see age ranges from 5 to 95. Most of them fall in the middle, but we get a little bit at each end and it keeps it interesting.
What types of injuries and ailments do you help rehabilitate?
I specialize in lower extremity injuries. So I see a good number of hip and knee injuries at this point in my career. We see a pretty high volume of total joint replacements, hip labral tears and ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) reconstructions at the knee with our athletes.
Some of your colleagues handle upper-body injuries, such as shoulders and arms?
Yes. It's all orthopedics, so it's all going to be bone and joint in our facility. But my colleagues will treat neck and back injuries, shoulder and elbow injuries, some work related and some sports injuries. And then we also have colleagues in occupational therapy, which is a separate but related field. We're lucky to have three certified hand therapists at Hughston that treat hand and wrist injuries (including carpal tunnel syndrome).
Are you seeing more and more Baby Boomers who have injured themselves?
We certainly see a very high volume of active middle age and aging populations that are wanting to stay active for more years. Especially with our military population here in Columbus, we see a lot of military retirees that stay in this area that really want to stay active in their retirement.
Do you treat active-duty military people?
We see active duty on a regular basis here. They do some orthopedics (at Fort Benning), but they refer their specialty orthopedics to the Hughston Clinic. So our physicians will do the specialty surgeries. And all of the Tricare dependents -- their spouses and kids -- will come to us for their orthopedic care.
Has there been an especially difficult case you've worked with?
I've had a couple that have been quite challenging. The most rewarding was to watch these two gentlemen go back to work. Both had been in severe accidents with multiple fractures, and they were in their 40s and 50s. But to see them work so hard and go back to work and to their families was very rewarding.
How does a typical day go for you?
I typically will see around 14 patients in an eight-hour day, and it varies from day to day, depending upon cancellations. And then the nice thing about having our physicians here is that sometimes I'll get called over for a consult while a patient's in the clinic seeing the doctor, or if they're getting ready to have surgery.
That's the nice thing about having a good relationship with the referring physicians, we get to have that contact and input with the physicians as they see the patients.
So you do see patients before surgery?
Yes, especially pre-operatively, we may start them on an exercise program to prepare them for surgery. And we typically will start postoperative care, depending on the procedure, within the first week.
It probably varies from patient to patient, but how long does it take to rehab a knee replacement?
It really depends on the level of activity that the patient wants to return to. We will see a total knee replacement anywhere between six and 12 weeks on average. Again, it depends on what level of activity that they want to get back to, and just on their general well being, and their level of strength before surgery. ... We set our goals for therapy based on the patient's goals. They aren't here to meet my expectations. They're here to meet their own.
What's the toughest or most challenging aspect of your job?
The most challenging part is you work with people everyday. You're dealing with patients who are obviously in pain and having to ask them to do things that you know will make them better, but that hurt at the moment. But on the other side of the coin, there are plenty of patients that we have to kind of hold back the reins on and educate them to not do too much too soon and further damage what we're working on. ...
I say (it's about) finding that fine line and that balance in what motivates each patient. There's certainly an emotional aspect to that. It can be very frustrating at times for the patient, and we do spend a significant amount of time with that patient each week because they might be in the clinic an hour for three times a week. We're going to have that one-on-one time with them, and in a lot of cases we are the ones that are going to convince them that it's OK that they don't feel good today, that it will get better.
The most rewarding part of your job?
Seeing our patients achieve their goals and get back to whatever it is they want to get back to, whether it be sports or work or playing with their grandchildren. That's the rewarding part, watching the patient walk out of the clinic and go back to their life.
Do some ever follow up with you and say thanks?
Pretty often, the ones that you may run into at the ballpark with their children or at the grocery store, or even the ones that just pop their head back in the office when they come to see the doctor two years later. It's always fun to see them again to see how they're doing.
What advice do you have for someone considering a career as a physical therapist?
I think the biggest thing to consider that there is a fairly long time commitment for education in a health-care field. You certainly reap the benefits in practice, and it can be a very rewarding, but sometimes emotionally exhausting.
One thing I would say is to go and shadow and observe in a setting that you think you might enjoy before you go into a program. Most physical therapy programs require some observation hours to make sure that you've seen and you have been in there and actually like it first. We've had several people come through and go on to pursue a career in physical therapy and are now colleagues. But we've also had some come in and say, yeah, this isn't really what I want to do for the rest of my life.
That's especially so in some different settings, working in, say, a neurological setting where you're working with patients after a stroke, or working with patients after a brain injury or a spinal cord injury. Those are very different from what I do, and it takes a different set of skills. It takes a different personality to do that. It takes a very special person to be a pediatric physical therapist ... So there's a broad range of things to consider, but you have to find an aspect that fits for you.
The bottom line is you have to be a people person?
Absolutely, because you are working with people every minute of every day, whether it's with your patients, their family members, the referring physician or the rest of your staff.