Expert Breakfast Report for March 20th 2024: Dr Carrie Falling, School of Physiotherapy.

Dr Falling described her extraordinarily varied work background, of undertaking First Year Health Sciences as a foreign student, of her deep interest in people and what it means to be human, all with a contagious enthusiasm sprinkled with flashes of self-deprecating humour.

Note: As this article is unusually long, it will be published in two parts:


A Curious Person

Dr Falling first made it clear that she was happy to have questions as she went along, “I'm open to sharing about herself.” While her family is from “all over”, she was raised in Alabama. While both her parents were engineers, she did not have a specific career goal growing up, “I consider myself a curious person who enjoys learning and exploring new experiences.”

Artist in Three Dimensions

In fact, she first obtained a Bachelors degree in Fine Arts, majoring in glassblowing: ”I always felt far more comfortable in 3 dimensions than two. . . . I had a blast! But I had no idea what I was going to do with that.” She was “pretty sure” that her degree plus $5 might get her a bus ticket, but that was about all! However, through “a friend of a friend of a friend...” Carrie landed a job with a renowned glass artist in New York. One of her main interests was curiousity about people and what it means to just be a human, the entirety of emotions, the experience and what does that even really mean. Being in the Art world gave her an opportunity to experience and understand that - for herself as well as others - in a different way. She travelled with her new mentor to Europe a few times, adding to her own experience. “And she I just loved making things. I am probably more of a craftsman than an artist in a lot of ways. Again [I had a] great time.”

Medical Technician

Later, Carrie worked at a doctor's office as a receptionist, and trained as a medical technician. “I can’t believe they let me give shots. I don’t know why they allowed me to do that. And I helped with a lot of medical procedures.” This was Carrie’s first taste of work in the medical field. “Loved who I worked with. Loved the patients. Had a great time! -– Although I still had a panic attack the first time I gave an injection!”

Health Support Engineer to US Army

Remaining curious and wanting to do different things, she went to massage therapy school while continuing as a med. tech. However, instead of entering the massage field on graduation, Carrie worked for the U.S. Army as a contractor with the title of Senior Analyst. Although very uncertain about what that title actually meant, having grown up with engineers, she enjoyed supporting them in their work - and also enjoyed going to many different places, such as helicopter construction facilities. She learned a lot about various aircraft and associated equipment, such as Chinooks and Black Hawks, the black box flight recorders (which are far more likely to be red and white, never black). “When I was in my twenties, my tagline was something like, ‘Careers are for people with no imagination.’ I think this was my defence argument, because I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. “ Others in her family had followed the usual pathway of getting a job and continuing in it until retirement, but “it just wasn't me. I wanted new experiences, and I wanted to travel. I wanted a new job. And that’s what I chose to do - much to the chagrin of my family”

Massage Therapist

Following that stint with the Army, (“They promoted me, so I quit the job”), Carrie took a job as a Massage Therapist, and loved it, enjoying getting back into the patient care arena and getting to know people.

Getting to know them in some detail in many cases, apparently, as Carrie told us:” “It's amazing what patients will tell you when you are in a room with them for like an hour, and.. ., , [she quietly said that she had been about to say, ‘and touching them’, but with one of her characteristic broad grins, changed that to . . “providing care.” ]

She worked as a massage therapist for 10 years, including moving to Chicago, and continued to be amazed at what her patients would tell her, that she was sure they would not tell anyone else, however close. Carrie put this down to their confidence in her and trust that developed, so that they felt safe about relating such things to her.

The Commonality of Human Experience. . .

“And I realised that, actually, I think human beings are all pretty much struggling in varying degrees over the same things - of feeling insecure, feeling lost, feeling like letting people down, letting ourselves down, not living up to our own expectations or expectations of other people, and torturing ourselves with those things, and apparently going it alone. . . I thought, ‘There's so much more similar between us than there is different, in terms of what we're experiencing with other people. But we're doing it alone.’”

Master of Art Theory and Criticism . . . or Physiotherapy?

Once again feeling the need for a change, and keen to be in an English-speaking country, Carrie was attracted to a Master of Art Theory and Criticism course at Essex University in the UK. She gathered all the documents required together - certificates, letters of recommendation, etc., then at the last moment thought, “I don’t want to do that! . . . as you do . . . ”. She discussed what to do with her future husband Mark, who suggested Australia, but Carrie was not keen, and said, “What about New Zealand?” “Done!”, said Mark. So, the whole thing was decided in a 60-second conversation. That decision was taken in April of that year, but then Carrie had to decide what she was going to do in New Zealand, thinking, ”It must be time to go back to school.” She enrolled in Physiotherapy here in Otago and they arrived in January of the following year, having got married in October the year before. So, from being a Massage Therapist to becoming a student took about 8 months, with marriage and a very long trip to a completely new country thrown in. She does not recommend this course of action, “because you will show up in the [new] country absolutely outside of your mind.”

First Year Health Sciences as a Foreign Student

Carrie chose Otago over AUT having looked the the web pages and thinking, “Well, that one looks better. So, it was a very well-informed decision! . . . . So I showed up in First Year Health Sciences. Now what is that?! . . .It is an intense situation. My sympathies go to all of you. 8 a.m. Such big words! In a foreign language. What is aluminium? [said in a Kiwi accent] . .” Must be a new element in the Periodic Table . . . .because we call it Aluminum [said in an American accent].” Although Carrie had done Chemistry and Physics twice before, she was then being taught by people she understood better, in a system she understood. “When you’re new to the system, it is intense. And even though English is my first language, it’s not the same.” On top of all that, Carrie felt under pressure because completing the Physiotherapy course was the whole reason she and her husband were in this country. She had to succeed.

Despite all that, she made it into Physio. Most of her friends transferred to Medicine, but Carrie stuck with Physiotherapy, “And boy, I made the right choice - for me.”

Physiotherapy is Not Just About Sports!

Although many of us might think of Physiotherapy in connection with sport and sport injuries, “The diversity of Physio is HUGE!” “ - Carrie talked of physiotherapists working in oncology, rheumatology, cardiology, respiratory and many other specialities. And it is not only what you specialise in, but where you work: hospitals, rehab. centres, schools, and so on. One of the chief differences between Medicine and Physiotherapy is that, in Medicine, upon initial qualification you are “locked in” to hospitals for years before you are allowed to specialise. Further, it is unlikely that you would ever change that specialisation, as to do so would require going back almost to the start of that hospital training. In contrast, a newly qualified Physiotherapist can immediately choose to be a generalist or go into a specialisation - with the further possibility of changing course relatively easily at a later date.

While her background involved working with elite athletes in the US, here - once again looking for a change in direction - she transitioned to focusing on chronic pain, bowel disease and cancer. “Once again, had a great time - but again, got bored, as you do”.

Into Teaching

Then came a phone call from the Dean at the School of Physiotherapy asking Carrie to do some teaching, so she left her job and returned as a Teaching Fellow in Physiology for a year. “Had a great time!” Soon after, Carrie embarked on her Ph.D. , [which. included a 6-month study period in the US as a recipient of the MacGibbon PhD Travel Fellowship (Division of Health Sciences), which is funded by the Alumni of Otago in America Inc.] This was followed by Division of Health Science post-doctoral studies. Her research was - and still is - about chronic pain and why people with other diseases, such as chronic bowel disease, e.g. Crohn’s disease, commonly develop chronic musculoskeletal pain., “I am one of the few Physios on the planet who is researching pain in people who have got Crohn’s disease and things like that.”

She feels that the problems of people with chronic health conditions cannot be solved by Medicine because of the way the system is structured.

“When you look at all of my jobs, it might looks as though I’ve got career ADD [attention deficit disorder]. But when you look at the fact that I’m curious about what it means to be human . . . learning more about people and how to care for them . . . it might seem more of a straight line.”

Question Time*

Q.“What is the most rewarding thing about Physiotherapy for you?”

A. “People. But that’s my life.” Dr Falling went on to note that she has closed her practises and so is no longer involved in patient care in that way, and now the reward is in the students, the staff and the people she does research with, that Physiotherapy is a vehicle to care for people rather than an end in itself.

Q. “Is there anything you wish you had done sooner . . . ?”

A. “I don’t know specifically what you’re asking, but I’ll answer as I hear it - which is: I would ‘stop torturing myself!”. Carrie went on to say how, when she was younger, she agonised about what career she should take, feeling she ought to know. People would ask each other what they going to do and talk about it, and Carrie did not have an answer. Now, she feels it is a strength, and wished she had had the courage just to say, “‘I don’t know. But I’ll find out. I wouldn’t want to get to the end of my life and say I didn’t have the courage to make a change.”

Q. What is the most interesting place you have been to?

Carrie immediately qualified her answer by commenting that she could talk only about her own experience, not actually about the place as a whole. “And I’m going to give you two answers, because I don’t think there is one best place.” Carrie talked about going to São Paulo Salvador, Brazil for her 30th birthday for two weeks. “”It was raining, and this spontaneous local drumming band came along the middle of the street. Passers-by just simply joined in to form the “biggest, spontaneous conga line you’ve ever seen” with everyone dancing: “It was just like a movie, I had a blast! I really enjoyed it.” Her second choice was India, where she went to the wedding of one of her closest friends, “I don’t know whether you’ve been to an Indian wedding, but you need to go! [See also picture in part 2 - to be published].

Carrie enjoying Indian Weddings — Image by: John Cross

There are so many colours, and it lasts for days”. Being the only white person there she came in for particular attention, ending up with “so many photos of me in all the colours”. It was the wedding season in India, and “I just kept going to weddings! enjoying it so much she went to other weddings, “If you had weighed me before and after [I went to India] . .… I ate so much food. I had such a blast. . . . India is a phenomenal country. I went with a friend. We got lost, and all sorts of crazy things. Walking down the street [in India], everything is on the street with you. Every kind of person, every kind of vehicle... lanes: they are just a suggestion!  And there was a python. . . “

A Python . . . — Image by: John Cross

This python was apparently in the care of a man and was wrapped round him, but they only became aware of it when about a foot away from this huge snake. Her friend “I won’t tell you what she said, it was a little colourful . . . it was massive, and I could feel it’s breath on me. And the leap that happened was profound. . . . Codi [friend] screamed loudly and jumped a mile and swore a lot! Oh, by the way, that's how you improve relationships. That's how you become the American stereotype. Because you scream and cuss really loudly, I think. “

Research on How to Spread Health Knowledge to Areas of Need

Q. If you could do research anywhere in the world, where would you pick?

“Probably in the last year or so, I have been feeling more interested in humanitarian physiotherapy, similar to the Doctors Without Borders kind of concept. To go to places that have either been decimated by war or climate change. Not only to provide physio care, which I am happy to do, but also to sort out how to give health knowledge to the community. We need to give people knowledge about how to teach people about the human body and how to help that and rehab and let them care for themselves. Because I think health knowledge is not my possession. And understanding the human body is not my possession. That needs to be everybody's knowledge. And I would rather give knowledge to a community so they can care for themselves, without people like me needing to come in to do it. How do you do that, though?” Research would be needed on how to go about meeting these aims with the best chance of success. “Or I would go and work in an elephant sanctuary, and just research how you would do that.” [Part 2 to be published April 3rd].

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Posted: Wednesday March 27, 2024