Eleven-year-old Ethan stands outside his door, eagerly awaiting physical therapist Meghan Smolk. The minute he spots her, he dashes back into his room, running around frantically to find his shoes and gather his laundry to drop off on the way to the gym.
They take the stairs for added exercise. Ethan is suffering from pneumonia due to an underlying condition, Kartagener syndrome, which causes decreased cilia motility in his respiratory track.
During today’s session, Smolk has aerobic activities planned to increase his cardiovascular strength to help with airway clearance.
Once in the gym, Smolk walks Ethan through stretching exercises, while checking his heart rate and oxygen levels in his blood.
“Athletes stretch, too, you know?” she tells Ethan, who is eager to skip the stretching and head straight to the basketball hoop.
After walking on the treadmill for about 10 minutes, Ethan finally gets his wish. While shooting hoops, Smolk challenges him to stand on one foot and see how many baskets he can make. She then instructs him to switch legs.
Though it’s fun and games for Ethan, Smolk is encouraged because the aerobic activity is also strengthening his hips and increasing his balance.
As a part-time physical therapist at Akron Children’s Hospital, Smolk spends her days evaluating and treating outpatients and inpatients mainly in the pediatric ICU and hematology/oncology department.
Patient conditions can range from inpatients receiving chemotherapy to outpatients suffering from headaches and concussions.
“My goals evolve around trying to empower patients and families and showing them tools they need,” Smolk said. “Each session [is different]. It depends on what the kids need, whether you’re trying to get them home, so you’re giving them a home exercise program, or they need equipment and it needs to be ordered.”
Smolk begins her day at 7 a.m., working with preoperative patients who may need instructions on how to use a piece of equipment, such as crutches, they’ll require after surgery.
Then, at 7:45 a.m., she heads over to the physical therapy team’s daily huddle, where they discuss the previous day’s events, happenings for the current day, and any additional issues or updates.
From there, Smolk reviews her schedule for the day and hits the floor.
“A huge part of our job is being flexible and knowing when to shift roles,” she said. “Are you working more with families to teach their baby how to stretch their neck, or are you working with teenagers? You’re always shifting gears and … trying to progress them so they can meet their goals.”
After working with Ethan, Smolk visits her next patient, 2-year-old Sophia. She suffers from cerebral palsy and has been in Akron Children’s Pediatric ICU for 2 weeks due to acute respiratory failure.
Smolk checks her vitals and looks for pressure sores from lying in a hospital bed. Then, she stretches the toddler’s arms and legs to increase range of motion and lubricate her joints.
After lunch, she attends a few meetings and ends her day with 16-year-old outpatient Savannah, who is suffering from headaches and neck pain. Smolk evaluates her posture, the strength in her neck and upper extremity, and finally her neck range of motion.
Smolk concludes Savannah’s headaches are related to poor posture, and her muscles are being overworked to compensate for it.
She educates the teen about proper posture and gives her exercises to do at home, including a pectoral stretch to loosen up these tight muscles and small head nods to improve motion and reduce tension.
Smolk said mental flexibility is the key to succeed as a physical therapist.
“You have to be able to shift gears because our schedules can change or the patient’s status can change … and you have to figure out how to get around it,” she said.
Smolk began her career at Akron Children’s as a volunteer in the rehabilitation services department, while an undergraduate student at the University of Akron. She also volunteered for Camp Ed Bear for cancer and blood disorder patients and steered the TWIG’s craft cart.
After her experiences here with the children, Smolk knew this is where she wanted to build her career.
In 2005, she carried out her clinical work here, serving as a physical therapist student for 8 weeks. Smolk later joined Akron Children’s full-time in 2007 and has never looked back.
“I love working with the kids and hopefully empowering them so they feel like they have some control,” she said. “Knowing that I had a role in helping a child or family anyway that I could is something that is important to me.”