As a physiotherapist, Helen helps patients who have suffered strokes regain their strength and balance. Ultimately she helps them get their independence back. But with funding pressure on the NHS, there are challenges in the job too. She tells us what it’s really like to be a physio.
Name: Helen Spencer
University Hospital of South Manchester
Industry: Medicine & Healthcare
What is your job? Physiotherapist
How long have you been doing this job? In current job for two years; worked as a physio for six.
Degree: MSc pre-registration physiotherapy; BSc biological and biomedical psychology.
A-levels: Art, Psychology and biology
1. What was your very first job?
My first job was in the Pier store in Chester as a sales associate.
2. What did you want to do when you were at school?
I didn't know what I wanted to do in school. When I took my A-levels I had an interest in psychology, and so took psychology at university level. But was unsure what I would do with it.
3. What made you want to do your current job?
I dropped out of my psychology degree and started working at the Pier and TK Max. I then decided to go back to university and ended up on a new course because the psychology degree I chose had higher entry requirements due to the increase in tuition fees. I chose biological and biomedical psychology.
In my second year I became interested in healthcare and began my search for a career, looking into audiology, speech and language therapy, art therapy and occupation therapy before settling on physiotherapy.
4. How did you get there?
Once I decided to become a physiotherapist, I took the MSc pre-registration course when I completed my BSc. To get into the course I had to show an interest in healthcare and complete some work experience or volunteer in my chosen area. Although this was difficult, I managed to get some experience at The Christie hospital in Manchester. I also completed volunteer work in a caring role for charities in the UK and Russia.
5. What is a typical day like?
I currently work on the stroke unit at Wythenshawe Hospital — although I do rotate units, so I get to work in different areas every eight to nine months. As a more senior member of staff I am in charge of organising the day. I work in a team with another senior physio, two junior physios and an assistant. We often have students as well, and we work very closely with occupational therapists.
All patients on the ward who are having active rehabilitation will be seen every day (this means any patients who still have therapy goals they are aiming to achieve). We help people to gain strength and balance. We help them to sit up independently, to stand and, if possible, to walk again. We work with a variety of different disabilities that have been caused by strokes. This can include visual difficulties, communication issues, difficulty balancing, problems swallowing — or more serious issues like those who are unable to sit up or move without assistance.
6. What's the best thing about your job?
The most rewarding part of my job is seeing people regaining their independence. For some people it might only be the ability to feed themselves, for others it might be walking with the end goal of getting back to work. It's what is important for the person, and the journey we can experience with them.
7. What is the most challenging thing about your job?
Working with a patient and their family who is not progressing any further. Maybe someone that can stand, but will never walk again. We have to have difficult conversations with them and support those patients in their choices.
8. What advice do you have for people who want to do what you do?
I would recommend anyone considering a career in physiotherapy to really consider all of their options first. Funding has now changed from when I qualified and students now need to pay to train. I also completed the course as a 'more' mature student, having been to university once, dropping out and working for a year.
I was 25 when I qualified so I had some life experience behind me. Patients often feel more at ease with someone a little older. I also found it helped a great deal with my confidence when dealing with challenging situations compared with how I might have gone about them having just left school.
9. What things do you wish you’d known before starting your career?
I wished I'd known a bit more about all the areas physiotherapists can work in - respiratory, musculoskeletal and neurological and perhaps a bit more about the NHS and employment choices after qualifying.
10. Where would you like to be in five years?
In five years I'd like to be working in a neurological setting, with people who have experienced brain injuries. I’d like to work at a more senior level and for a more prolonged period without rotating. Possibly not in the NHS - I guess we will have to see what happens over the next few years. Although I have so much to be thankful for from the NHS and am proud to work within it.
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