Be Imaginative and Love What You Do, Speaker Tells New Doctors of Physical Therapy

By Purnell T. Cropper | January 31, 2012

Use your imagination, love what you do, seek the truth, and build personal relationships, advised Dr. Gerard P. Brennan, Director of Clinical Quality and Outcomes Research for Intermountain Healthcare Physical Therapy, as he inspired the new doctors of physical therapy at the Arcadia University Commencement ceremony on Saturday, Jan. 28. Brennan shared his beliefs about the personal values needed to succeed as a physical therapist. (Watch the ceremony on

“You will undoubtedly face difficult challenges in your journey as a physical therapist,” he said. “There will be good moments and there will be days you will like to forget, so occasionally and especially in celebrating today it is worthwhile reflecting on the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain: ‘Always work like you don’t need the money. Always fall in love like you’ve never been hurt. Always dance like nobody is watching. And always—always—live like it’s heaven on earth.'”

He said:

My purpose today in speaking with you is to share what I believe are valuable personal qualities to succeed, and to relate those qualities to being a physical therapist because they transmit value to patients.

I remember not too long ago a young Mom who wanted to have a third baby, but she had severe chronic neck and low back pain. She was obese, and she feared that a pregnancy would cause serious damage to her spine. She was depressed. She wanted to feel better, to lose weight, and have another baby, but she was losing hope. I thought about how to speak to her. I imagined how important it was for her to be a Mom. I couldn’t help but imagine how difficult it must be to lose 30 or 40 pounds, not ever having ever lost weight myself, only having gained it. We talked about nutrition and exercise, not about being overweight, or needing to lose weight. Most importantly, I told her I believed she could do it. I gave her some pretty simple advice about nutrition, an exercise program, and how she could come to see me occasionally for support and to update her exercises. She lost a significant amount of weight, ran a 3-mile race with her family to celebrate, and gave birth to a new healthy baby within a year and a half. When the Public Relations Department at Intermountain tracked her down and videotaped her story, they asked her what she considered the value of physical therapy and how it helped her. Her answer was that the therapist believed in me. He believed I could do it and encouraged me. That was the value. I had simply listened to her and connected with her by caring, by imagining.

To provide value to patients one of the most important qualities you have as a physical therapist is imagination. Many think of imagination as the driver behind innovation and invention. That is not the only kind of imagination and it is not the imagination that is required on a daily basis in the clinic. What is required of our imagination routinely in the clinic is the power to imagine, or to empathize with other human beings and patients, the experiences we have never shared, but the patient and their loved ones are living and feeling in the present. These are people whose lives may have been changed in an instant or over time through accident or disease. It is through our imagination and our compassion that we touch other people’s lives and demonstrate our caring and concern for them and our service to them.

We need to improve our profession and our influence in the health care community by raising our voice for those whose voice is often drowned out in this industry, the patient’s voice. By choosing to identify ourselves as physical therapists not with the powerful in the healthcare industry but with the less powerful, we retain the ability to imagine how we can meet the patients’ needs better and why. This type of imagination is not magic. You carry this power within yourself already. The challenge is simply to imagine better.

The famous Greek author, Plutarch, once said that “what we achieve invariably will change outer reality.” I believe this, so I am here today to encourage you to achieve, because defining value today is a difficult challenge in healthcare, and it will require high achievement. High achievement, as you must feel today, breeds high morale, and high morale is important because it sustains our ability to endure. Achievement and endurance require a set of personal qualities that are critical for your success as individuals, and as physical therapists. Let me share with you my sense of these important qualities.

First, find something that you love to do and do it with all your heart. It is impossible to learn anything or to do anything successfully without being emotionally attached to it. So, find what you love, and do it. Ultimately, success stems from the degree to which you accomplish this. Society will tell you that success is how much money you make. Don’t believe it. Success will not be how much money you make; success will be the difference you make in patients’ lives. Find what it is that you love to do… do it… and then live within your means.

Late in my career, I met a wonderful person who became a close friend, Dr. Richard Erhard. He was an esteemed colleague in our profession and one of the original founders of the American Academy of Manual Physical Therapy. At a reception in his honor, some years ago, he asked that I introduce him. In preparing my remarks, I called him and asked him what he felt was his most important contribution to the Academy and the Profession. He paused and said to me quite humbly, “I always tried to seek the truth”.

Seek the truth in your practice of physical therapy. This will provide you a sense of inner peace that will always guide you. You depart Arcadia University having learned how to learn. Maintain that skill your entire life by loving to learn. Strive for excellence, prioritize your time, and commit to the concept of life-long learning. Real scientific truth is often elusive. I encourage you to believe in yourself, to persevere, and to maintain your focus in order to see the truth. Truth is often hidden by detractors and those who feel threatened they may lose something. Pay them no mind. Surround yourself with support. Stay hungry for what ignites your spirit to discover an unknown, to ask “what if”, and to improve what we do as Physical Therapists.

The value of your career, the value of your profession, and most important the value of your own happiness in life will depend on the relationships that you build with people closest to you that you love. These relationships do not make your career secondary, they enhance it. You need to be emotionally attached to those you love and to your career in order to learn effectively. Emotion is the substance that facilitates this life-long learning. You cannot connect with patients without a relationship that fosters caring and understanding. Find what it is that you love doing and keep searching if you don’t know. Stay hungry … maybe even foolish, but focus on what makes you happy and what drives you. If you find what it is you love, then you will bring something extra to your work, to your patients, to your colleagues, to your family, and to the profession of Physical Therapy. In this manner, you stay engaged, you succeed together with those around you, and at times you fail together. But, you move forward in your journey, and it feels and works better when you have relationships and feel part of a team. We are all connected. Connected in the sense that each of us wants to feel valued, and to provide value to our patients. The next horizon in your professional life is to demonstrate the value of physical therapy to healthcare in America.

Brennan’s clinical research is in areas related to orthopaedics, classification of patients with low back pain, spinal manipulation, quality improvement and treatment effectiveness studies. In his 36 years of practice, Brennan describes his philosophy of care as “rooted in quality improvement and clinical research.”

Brennan has received research grants from the Agency for Health, Research, and Quality, the Deseret Foundation and from private funding, and has published over 20 peer-reviewed manuscripts. As a member of the American Physical Therapy Association, he currently serves as the Vice President of the Orthopedics Section of the APTA and is a past-Trustee for the Foundation for Physical Therapy.

He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic and Manual Physical Therapists and is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Utah and the University of Pittsburgh. Brennan earned a Master of Science in Physical Therapy in 1975 from Duke University and a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology from the University of Utah in 1985. He enjoys reading and spending time with his family in the deserts and mountains near his home in Salt Lake City, Utah.