The Write Moves?

What do physiotherapy and journalism have in common? Jennifer Trueland talks to practitioners who have sampled both careers

Woman cartoon with CSP membership badgeJulie Bieles was inspired to switch from journalism to physiotherapy after being on what she calls ‘the receiving end’ as a patient for back problems.  She has just finished her first year as a part-time physiotherapy student at London South Bank University. ‘I have a kyphosis and a scoliosis, which really caused problems for me when I was sitting at a desk most of the time. People have this idea that journalism means being a roving reporter, getting out and about, but really, you’re stuck at a desk on the end of a phone. ‘When I was in a rehab ward [with my back problems] one of the physios mentioned that she had a similar underlying posture to me and could never think about being in a desk job. It made me think about retraining.’ Although she returned to her job as technology correspondent for a weekly business magazine, she was made redundant and worked freelance – both in journalism and in management consultancy – for three and a half years. But the comments of that physiotherapist stuck with her, and she decided to look at retraining. After trying – and rejecting – teaching, she decided that physiotherapy was what she was looking for.

Appeal of physios

 ‘They seemed such a great group of people,’ she says. One year into her training, Julie is a CSP rep for her student  cohort, loves the course and sees some common ground between journalism and physiotherapy. ’In both, you have to build a rapport and be able to communicate with a wide range of people, ‘ she says. ‘You’ve got to think of your audience; think about the person.’ ‘Of course this is all in theory as I don’t start my first practice placement until Monday,’ she adds. She hopes her experience as a technology journalist, translating very complex information for a general audience, will stand her in good stead. But she believes physiotherapy requires much deeper understanding than journalism. ‘As a journalist you skim the surface of topics – you become an instant “expert” then you forget all about it. In physiotherapy you have to have a whole different level of knowledge.’ ‘I suppose the jobs are like chalk and cheese, really – apart from the communication side – and, of course, a major difference is that physiotherapy is mobile, while journalism is immobile.’ Her course has had some personal benefits. Students from sports and personal trainer backgrounds have been able to give her tips about her back.  ‘It’s a good place to be, ‘she says. ‘Quite a few people on the course are retraining also – I’m not even the oldest,’ she says.’ But I really hate doing exams again.’ Having experienced employers’ reluctance to take on people with chronic conditions she initially thought she would use her physio training to improve work prospects for these people.  But the course has made her aware of the many opportunities opened to qualified physios. ‘I’m still interested in raising awareness in the workplace, but I’m finding physiotherapy so fascinating that I’m not sure what I’ll end up doing,’ she says.

Different demands

Paula Coates is a runner, writer and practising physiotherapist. Those who believe they have book in them would envy  Paula Coates’ experience. The London-based physiotherapist was approached by a publisher who had heard through a friend that she might be a good person to write a book about running injuries. ‘We met for a cup of coffee, he was a marathon runner; I’m a marathon runner, and that was that,’ she says. That first book, Running Repairs, published in 2007, almost wrote itself, she says. ‘I really enjoyed it. Being a marathon runners and a physio, it’s a topic I’m passionate about. ‘It helped having the guidance of the commissioning editor, but I loved  the fact that I could write down things in the same way that I speak to patients every day.’ Three further books covering back pain, diabetes and arthritis were published in January this year. Like Running Repairs, they encourage people to self-manage as much as possible, and give help with preventing problems. ‘I’m helping people avoid physiotherapists,’ she jokes. She describes herself as ‘a physiotherapist who writes books’ rather than a journalist. But  her chatty, down-to-earth writing style has won her commissions from magazines and newspapers. She writes a column for a new magazine called Women’s Running and she contributes to national newspapers. Meanwhile, she is still working as a physiotherapist, specialising in back pain, at Balance Performance Physiotherapy in London.

Time issues

The roles have their similarities, she says. ‘The whole point of writing is to write down what I say to people in the clinic. It’s about being good at communication.’ But she discerns differences too. ‘As a physiotherapist, I have a diary and people come to me. As long as I keep to time, that’s it. When I have a day off to do writing, I have to be self-disciplined and not  have a lie-in or watch daytime TV.’ The knowledge and expertise she has as a physiotherapist help her to write authoritatively, but, she says: ‘You have to remember that you’re not writing a text book.’ Being a published writer gives her more credibility with some patients, she says. But it is her therapeutic skills which are most important, she adds. ‘We do sell the books in the clinic, but people are referred to me as a back pain specialist, not a writer.’ Having just completed three books in a year, she is not sure where her writing career will take her next. ‘There are lots of things in the pipeline,’ she says. Definitely a case of watch this space.

Frontline journalism

When she was at school, Jo Humphreys, a physio who works at an intermediate care unit in Kensington and Chelsea primary care trust, really fancied being a journalist or a writer. ‘Instead I did the safe thing and became a physiotherapist,’ she says. ‘I thought about the NHS pension and the security. And I do really enjoy physio, but sometimes you want to try something different.’ Last year, with 15 years experience in physio, she wanted to check that childhood dream against reality and did three days work experience in the Frontline office.  ‘Everyone was lovely to me and gave me loads of stories to do, she says.  But it was an ‘eye opener’, she admits.

In print

‘I thought it would be a lot easier – and a lot more glamorous.  I thought I’d be sitting at my desk gaily writing away, working on one story at a time.  But you’re juggling several at a time, ringing up people and leaving messages, trying to write well and be accurate. And then, of course, the editor looks at it and criticises what you’ve done – and then some of it isn’t even published.’ Despite this somewhat grim assessment, she insists she thoroughly enjoyed the experience and found she had transferable skills. ‘I’m used to talking to strangers and asking questions and getting the information – I do that every day as a physio,’ she says. Although she is busy and enjoying her  physio job she thinks she might like to do some writing again in the future. ‘It was great to try it – it’s a question of keeping the momentum up,’ she says. The best thing about her three-day stint at Frontline, she says, was seeing the stories she’d worked on in print – and her name next to them. ‘I did enjoy putting together the story and seeing it published. And being praised by the editor was good too’. FL
Jennifer Trueland

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