The road to rehabilitation

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --

Ask anyone what the Air Force’s most important asset is and the likely answer will be “its people”. The Air Force operates on the capacities of its people. If an individual is injured and can’t perform their job, the mission suffers. There’s no “boneyard” for Airmen where we can harvest parts from. The Air Force cannot rebuild an Airman, but they can rehabilitate.

Located at the 27th Medical Group building, the Physical Medicine Office, better known as physical therapy, does just that: lead our Cannon team members in rehabilitation, getting them back to the mission and back in the fight.

Physical therapy is an office of five; one therapist, one contract therapist and three technicians. On average, they see about 40 patients a day, but a lot of those are repeats. Typically, patients come in twice a week and the average time spent in physical therapy is usually one or two months. It’s this repeat action of seeing the same person over multiple weeks that makes this job more enjoyable versus other medical career fields.

“As far as medical goes, when you see your doctor you only see him or her for a few moments and then you’re done.” said Tech. Sgt. John Welch 27th Special Operations Medical Operations Squadron Physical Medicine technician. “At physical therapy, we get to know the people on base because they’re coming in here on a regular basis while they get through their treatments. You’re able to build more of a rapport. At least for me it’s more social here.”

Welch says that the care they provide patients and the techniques they use is always evolving as new studies are being done. He emphasizes that the care they give is patient-centered treatment. This means that what might work for one patient may not work for another.

“The care is not what the therapist wants or what we want, it’s what the patient needs,” Welch said. “So if a patient comes in and says that they have knee pain, the therapist doesn’t say ‘for knee pain you need to do these exercises’ and gives them a handout. They evaluate to see why they have the knee pain and go from there.”

The Physical Therapy Office is furnished with a plethora of equipment which allows them to handle injuries from the wear and tear of day to day work, to post-operation assistance. Elastic resistance bands hang on hooks, medicine balls and free weights line the walls, and larger machines similar to what would be seen in any gym fill in the rest of the room.

The most interesting piece of equipment physical therapy has is their anti-gravity treadmill. If someone from the 1950s designed exercise machines for the future, it would probably look just like this. The user puts on a pair of neoprene-like shorts that zipper into a plastic enclosure that surrounds the treadmill. It allows the person to exercise at a percentage of their bodyweight. For Casey Wheat, physical therapy patient, it’s been helpful in his recovery, even if it’s only day two of using it.

“I had a bone spur located behind my Achilles tendon and they had to cut through it to get to the bone spur,” Wheat said. “This is week five of my physical therapy and when I first started, I had a hard time walking. In the five weeks, I’ve gotten back to hopping around. I’m on day two on this (anti-gravity treadmill) and I’ll be running at 75 percent. I started at 65 percent.”

Wheat mentioned the improvements that he’s made in the last five weeks and that progression is what Welch finds to be one of the more satisfying aspect of his job. Seeing someone when they first come in and what they’re capable of versus what they can do when their therapy is finished. There is a vast different between those two.

“From the very beginning when I joined the Air Force almost 15 years ago, I also hear the same thing when I say my job is physical therapy”, Welch said. “People always say ‘I wanted that job’. Even when I was at the Military Entrance Processing Station or at tech school, everyone would say that they wanted this job. I know why they did, it’s a great job and the best to get in the Air Force.”