• Article
  • July 13, 2014

From Patient to Physical Therapist

A physical therapist returns to La Rabida Children's Hospital in Chicago, the same hospital that treated her throughout her childhood.

By Lauren O'Rourke, PT

When I was young, I thought I was going to be a prima ballerina with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. Dancing three to five days a week, ballet was my life until I was 9 years old. Then I woke up one morning and couldn’t get out of bed. I was weak, and a rash had developed on my face and chest. I spent the next three to four weeks in and out of my pediatrician’s office, yet my doctor couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong. Finally, after a referral to the rheumatology clinic at La Rabida Children’s Hospital in Chicago, I got answers. The diagnosis: dermatomyositis, a potentially life-threatening autoimmune disease that affects the skin and muscles.

The next seven years of my life were a roller coaster, but because of the team at La Rabida, I lived to talk about it. I became a regular at the rheumatology clinic— sometimes visiting weekly. My parents liked having all of my appointments in one day since it was a 40-mile trip from Dyer, Ind., where we lived, to the hospital. The full days I spent at La Rabida involved blood work, strength testing, and consultations with the doctors on whether I was getting better or relapsing. Always a curious child, I became involved in my medical care, and the staff at La Rabida was great about letting me participate. I was always ready to give my history or list off my medications. Doctors would always tell my mom, “She is going to end up back here working with us in this room.”

My home life revolved around my condition. I went to school for half days in fourth and fifth grade because I was too weak to last an entire day. I also required regular infusions of medicine at home. Muscle and joint pain stopped my active lifestyle, so I would work with a physical therapist and learned strength-building exercises to do at home. I remember many things about my time at La Rabida: getting strawberries, yogurt and brown sugar— my favorite snack at the cafeteria, which I still eat to this day; trick-or-treating through the unit as a little devil; playing jokes on the med students; and most importantly, La Rabida being the hospital that helped me go into remission from that awful disease that stole most of my childhood.

I finished my last appointment at the hospital when I was 17, but I always knew I’d return to that “special place on the lake” where I found hope, compassion and healing care. Planning for college, I knew I wanted to be in the medical field helping children, and I loved my physical therapists who helped me with my ongoing joint and muscle pain. Thinking back on all my experiences, I reached a moment of clarity and decided to be a pediatric physical therapist. I graduated and worked at other hospitals, but when I saw an opening at La Rabida for a physical therapy position, I applied.

When human resources called and offered me the position, I immediately said yes and resigned from my former job. I recently celebrated my one-year anniversary at La Rabida. I have an enormous amount of empathy for the patients and parents. When I start working with a new patient and he or she tells me I don’t know what they’re going through, I share my story, and I show them my scars. We bond.

Lauren O’Rourke, PT, is a physical therapist at La Rabida Children’s Hospital in Chicago.

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