How I discovered my passion for physical therapy

March 25, 2019 Al Peng

If you asked me in college if physical therapy was my future, I would have laughed. I was on track to pursue a career as an anesthesiologist. In anticipation of applying to medical school, I spent my time at Boston College volunteering in the medical field.

I even worked with a cardiac surgeon in Springfield, Massachusetts, observing in the operating room and traveling to the Dana Farber Cancer Research Institute in Boston to perform DNA sequencing and mapping in the lab.

Despite my enjoyable experience in the medical field, I took time off from school after graduation and headed to Southern California. When I started applying for jobs in the area, I contacted the cardiac surgeon I worked with to ask if I could include him in my references for job interviews. Instead of providing his recommendation, he insisted I come back to Massachusetts to work for him as his research assistant.

During my time as a research assistant, my desire to become an anesthesiologist grew, but I also took time to explore various medical specializations. After diving into speech-language pathology, cardiac rehab, neurology, cardiac surgery, and others, I discovered physical therapy. The first time I walked into a physical therapy clinic was a game changer for me. I immediately felt connected.

I began shadowing the staff, asking questions, observing, and helping with inpatient and outpatient treatments. And with each new task, my desire to enter the profession grew. It grew so much that I applied to seven graduate programs in physical therapy, hoping to get in somewhere, anywhere. After a short, stressful wait, I accepted a spot in the program at the University of Miami beginning in May 1995.

The first time I walked into a physical therapy clinic was a game changer for me. I immediately felt connected.

My dream was to pursue pediatric physical therapy, however, my clinical internship at the Hospital for Special Surgery Sports Medicine clinic in New York City led me to change my focus to orthopedics. I graduated and took a job in Greenville, South Carolina, where I spent six months in acute care, eventually helping to launch a new outpatient orthopedic facility.

Not long after, my wife’s aunt —a physical therapist who ran the biomechanics lab at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles — let me know about an opening with the Los Angeles Dodgers. I applied and was hired.

Because I took the role without knowing much about rehabilitation in baseball, it became a learn-on-the-job position. I spent countless hours on the phone asking questions and learning from Dr. Frank Jobe, an orthopedic surgeon who performed the first-ever elbow reconstruction on Dodgers pitcher Tommy John in 1974 and co-founded the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic. After all, I had million-dollar prospects in my hands. I had to make sure everything I did was correct.

Check out these five habits to be a better physical therapist.

I learned how to rehabilitate an ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction (commonly referred to as Tommy John surgery) and take a player through a throwing program. And I must admit, it’s a rewarding experience to take a pitcher from immediate post-surgery to throwing a 97-mph pitch. However, after four seasons of dedicating my life to the team with extensive travel and long hours, I decided to pursue a more traditional 9-to-5 career.

This led me to Physiotherapy Associates in Littleton, Colorado. I started as a staff therapist, quickly transitioned to clinic director, and spent the next 12 years managing the clinic and staff. In 2015, I took a job as a clinic director at D1 Sports Medicine, a young, growing company that had potential for upward mobility.

At EXOS, my management skills have grown, and our team has more resources than ever at our disposal.

In addition to my role managing the clinic, I took on the challenge of opening a new, state-of-the-art physical therapy facility complete with a full basketball court and a 45-yard indoor turf field. We grew quickly, and within the first 18 months I had a staff of 12 physical therapists, four front office workers, and three techs. I continued to work on my management skills with guidance from our great leadership, and our clinic became very successful.

About two and a half years into my role with D1, the company was acquired by EXOS. The news was exciting and offered new opportunities for me and my staff. It was during this merger that I was promoted to the regional director team, achieving a goal I had been pursuing since I started work with D1.

Learn all you can about the new company’s principles, ethics, and values. And if possible, meet their leadership team.

The merger with EXOS has provided many opportunities to learn about performance training, and how I can integrate that with my physical therapy skills to provide the best treatment experience for our patients. My management skills have grown, and we have more resources than ever at our disposal. I’ve also been asked to become involved with business development, which is a new and exciting territory for me. I’m grateful for the new opportunities and excited for the future.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot not just about being a physical therapist, but also about the business behind the practice. My best advice for people in our field would be to use these tips for focusing on the future and overcoming obstacles during a merger:

1. Keep your career options open.

There may be an incredible opportunity waiting for you that you may miss if you’re not looking.

2. Take risks and embrace change.

Have an open mind and try new things. You may enjoy something you never thought you would, and without risk your career may become stagnant or boring.

3. Create a network.

Meet a lot of people and stay in touch. One of your connections could be the “in” you need for your dream job.

4. Love your job.

If you’re unmotivated or lack enthusiasm, make a change. The more driven and enjoyable your job, the better chance you have at getting to where you want to be.

5. Find balance.

Spend time on a hobby or sport that you love, and be sure to check out from work when you’re on vacation. (That one took me 20 years to figure out.)

About the Author

Al Peng

Al Peng, MSPT, is the regional director of operations for EXOS Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine. He previously worked as physical therapist for the LA Dodgers and spent 12 years as a clinic director for Physiotherapy Associates.

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