When we think of representation in the professional workforce, we used to primarily consider gender, race, ethnicity, and experience. Now, we also consider sexual orientation and gender identity. Some people are open to this, some may not be. Regardless of your beliefs regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, chances are, you work alongside someone with not only a different sexual orientation than you, but even someone who uses different pronouns than what you would have assumed.
When you think about this, does your coworker's sexual orientation or preferred pronouns have any impact on their ability to care for patients? To me, it should not matter. I am an openly gay woman, a lesbian for those who require an official label. Among my work peers in the setting that I work in, I am the only lesbian, but not the only LGBTQ+ individual. There is a wonderful person that I work with who identifies as bisexual, but otherwise, everyone in our department is heterosexual that I know of.
The world is changing and will continue to change with each generation to come. The world of healthcare is no exception. We will be facing situations that we never thought that we would. We will be treating patients that we may not understand and may even have an unintentional bias towards.
Why does all this matter when working in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation?
I am a competent therapist. I also happen to be a lesbian who is Hispanic and has tattoos. I would like to think that I treat every coworker and patient with respect and dignity. I have been lucky to say that my place of employment and my peers have been fully supportive of who I am as an individual. My work peers are primarily white and do not have visible tattoos, if they have any at all. Technically speaking, I am in the minority when you throw labels around such as these. When you start ticking boxes, I am in the minority.
However, my sexual orientation, ethnicity, and having tattoos has never changed my work and competence as a therapist. It has never changed how I am treated and viewed as a clinician. It has allowed for me to relate to patients similar to me, provide care to various backgrounds, and even teach my coworkers about the LGBTQ+ community. My coworkers not only treat me with respect in return, but they would stand up for me if it were necessary.
When you begin to listen and learn from those different around you, not only does your knowledge change, but your competence in work will as well. Patient care cannot be exclusive and narrow-minded. We treat people with many different diagnoses, backgrounds, comorbidities, statuses, and identities. When we face a situation that we are not familiar with, we must ask questions and open our minds to learn how to adapt as well as treat that person(s). We must grow together, learn together, and adapt together.
When you open your mind and begin to listen, you become a better therapist. You become a better provider. You become a better person. Everyone has a choice and the choice you make will determine which path you take when it comes to growing as a clinician. You can receive all the certifications, degrees, and specialties that you wish, but if you do not open your mind and learn from those different than you, you will not grow as a therapist.
I have faced some patient interactions with hostility when it comes to my tattoos, unbelievably. I had a patient once threaten to throw me into the wall because he “hated the tattoos on my skin” and said, “everyone with tattoos is incompetent and uneducated.” I was fortunate enough to have an Occupational Therapist cotreating with me at this time and was not afraid to intervene. It was at that point when I started to wear long sleeves at work. My employer does not require tattoos to be covered but I took it upon myself to cover them not because I was afraid but because I felt that if they were a distraction to the patient then I can easily remove that distraction. You are probably wondering how I responded to this man’s hostility. Well, I simply stated, “If my tattoos deem me as incompetent then you have every right to refuse service from me and not receive any physical therapy today. The choice is yours if you are going to allow what is on my skin to get in the way of your rehab and treatment.” The man became agreeable to work with me and later apologized, which I accepted.
Working at a major hospital in Saginaw, Michigan, we face many distinct types of situations and circumstances. Despite our differences, the team that I am a part of comes together to resolve and provide. I may be a minority in my group but I am not excluded. If anything, it demonstrates that everyone is welcome and included.
Being a competent therapist is my number one goal at my work. Listening to my patients is a priority for me as well as helping resolve whatever difficulties they may be facing. The team that I am on feels no different. We work together, thrive together, and resolve together.
I can sit here and discuss the horror stories of being discriminated against for being a lesbian or even for simply having tattoos. I can discuss the discrimination of being Hispanic in a primarily white community. Although those discriminations will unfortunately never go away, I insist that instead of bringing attention to only the negatives, let us shine light on the progress that we have made as a community.
Acceptance. Inclusion. Equality. Equity.
It is important for us to have representation of all backgrounds on a therapy team to allow for further patient care. There are patients of all backgrounds, race, ethnicities, sexual orientation, and even financial status. Regardless of their background, you can become attuned to their world, respond to their circumstances professionally, and it will allow you to become a stronger therapist with diverse experience.
I work for Mary Free Bed at Covenant HealthCare and I am proud that I do. This company has been nothing but inclusive with their representation for all their employees. I have never worked for a company more inclusive and accepting.
If you are someone who is struggling with an employer that you feel has a bias or has no representation for all, just know that there are employers out there that will make you feel safe to be yourself and welcomed. I found that employer as well as a team that never once made me feel like an outsider. For that, I intend on staying here for an exceptionally long time.
In closing, I ask that you take away one thing from this entry: Listen and pay attention. The more you listen, the more you learn. The more you pay attention, the more you are aware. Competence in therapy is not just taught in school, it is taught from experience and self-awareness.
Let us get to work.
My name is Alicia Meylan and I am a Physical Therapist Assistant for Mary Free Bed at Covenant HealthCare in Saginaw, MI. I have been there for almost 3 years, graduated from Delta College in 2020, and specialize in acute care. My hope is to continue to promote diversity in the workplace and represent the LGBTQ community in the PT field.
Kudos to the author!
Well said Alicia! I am very proud of the therapist you've become and I know you have a bright future ahead of you. I love the last line, "Let us get to work." Indeed!