During times of the global COVID-19 pandemic, one word consistently keeps coming up: unprecedented. I feel like I can’t turn on the news, log onto Facebook/Twitter, or read articles online without seeing the word. Whether media is referring to the unprecedented times we currently live in, the unprecedented amount of infection rates, or the unprecedented state of the nation’s economy, it seems there are several unknowns constantly flooding my news feed. After blowing dust off of my dad’s Merriam-Webster dictionary and looking up the definition of unprecedented, I found this: unprecedented – having no precedent, or earlier occurrence. In the context of the year 2020, unprecedented means that we are currently living in a time of vulnerability because we have never experienced a situation quite like this.
I did my undergraduate studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (go Tar Heels). In the Spring of 2017, there was a situation in which one of the major water supplies for the town became contaminated, causing the water to be undrinkable. Therefore, it was highly encouraged to buy bottles of water for the next few weeks while Orange County officials managed the situation and cleaned the water. Because of this, it became almost impossible to find any bottles of water in Chapel Hill. I was taking a statistical psychology course at the time and I remember talking with some of my classmates, finalizing my plan to drive to Durham or Raleigh in order to get water. Just as I finished talking, the professor stood up in front of the class, cleared her throat, and I prepared to take notes. “Before we begin, I want to talk about something more important than statistics. Here is my personal phone number; if any of you need anything during this water crisis, my family has a few spare bottles of water. Particularly for the freshman or sophomores who might not have a car to drive to a nearby city, you’re not alone during this and you can call me if you need anything.”
I was speechless. Not only had this professor given out her personal cell phone number to a class of over 150 students but she also offered precious water to whoever needed it. To put this act of kindness into perspective, this was like the equivalent of offering rolls of toilet paper to whoever needed it at the start of the pandemic. The genuine kindness and generosity my professor showed that day was nothing short of inspiring.
Flashforward to 2020 and, just like my experience in 2017, there were times where you couldn’t find water in the grocery store; however, there were other shortages too: bread, fruits, vegetables, meats, medicine, vitamins, and, yes, even toilet paper. A general nervousness gripped my fellow SPTs and me as we left our homes, routines, professors, and Campbell University to start classes online. No one knew how online class would go or how we would do physical labs or practicals, and it was clear that the entire world was scrambling to find its footing. The future was completely uncertain. Roughly a month into our venture of online PT school, I received a handwritten letter from one of my professors. The letter was nothing fancy, only saying that she missed our conversations, she was hopeful to return to some semblance of normalcy soon, and to keep working hard in school. She also included an inspirational quote in the letter. I later found out that the rest of my class also received similar individualized letters from that same professor.
While most are simple or small gestures, it is amazing what these acts of kindness can do. Whether it is offering help to those who need it or an honest word of hope to people who are uncertain and scared, the good that comes of these gestures is immeasurable. I would argue that both of my professors demonstrated a level of care for their students which was “unprecedented,” at least to me. They weren’t required to offer their words of reassurance. The universities won’t recognize them for their acts of kindness. They won’t get paid more for their actions. But that doesn’t matter; they offered their help because they understood that some of their students had feelings of uncertainty, of uneasiness, and of fear regarding the future. Those professors did what they did because it was the right thing to do.
I personally am a big proponent for the power of a therapeutic alliance. A therapeutic alliance basically means that putting in the effort to develop a relationship with your patients can improve overall patient-perception of care. Not only is a therapeutic alliance a testament to your efforts at building individualized rapport but the act of building a true relationship has been shown to decrease levels of stress and anxiety and improve subjective patient-reported health status.1 A lot of people go into physical therapy because they enjoy the amount of patient interaction that PT provides. As therapists, we have an awesome opportunity to really get to know our patients due to our constant interaction during the examination and treatment sessions. That being said, I think we can build greater therapeutic alliances and can go further than simply having pleasant conversation with our patients while still staying within the scope of our practice.
We have the ability to incorporate a biopsychosocial approach to interaction, really get to know the people we work with, and provide truly unprecedented care – not just to our patients but to our classmates and coworkers as well. Help a colleague who needs the support. Send a text, checking on a friend you haven’t talked to in a while. Ask someone who is sitting alone at lunch to eat with you. Don’t disrespect a coworker’s ideas by disregarding and shutting them down. Be mindful of the effect that your words and actions have on people, regardless of their magnitude.
We are all facing these unprecedented times together. The COVID-19 pandemic may make us feel alone and isolated; therefore, I would argue that it is essential now more than ever that we offer shoulders to lean on, smiles behind masks, and helping, sanitized hands. I would argue that this is an opportunity to get creative with how we care for our patients and care for one another. Lastly, I would argue that every single person has an opportunity to make the world we live in a better place today. Whether you’re a first semester SPT/SPTA or a veteran clinician, now is the time to be mindful, open, generous, creative, and kind with what you say, how you act, and who you are.
Unprecedented times require atypical awareness, aspiration, and love to provide unprecedented care.
- Taccolini Manzoni AC, Bastos de Oliveira NT, Nunes Cabral CM, Aquaroni Ricci N. The role of the therapeutic alliance on pain relief in musculoskeletal rehabilitation: A systematic review. Physiother Theory Pract. 2018;34(12):901-915. doi:10.1080/09593985.2018.1431343
Written by D. McKinley Pollock, SPT
(Campbell University, c/o 2021)