"What started as a whisper,
slowly turned into a scream"
Ben Harper - 2003
That pretty much sums up my experience of COVID-19 so far. We heard rumblings of a virus from somewhere other than here, and before we knew it, life had changed for ever. The fear was suddenly palpable and it built through our patient and staff community like a frenzy. The Wednesday before the lock down I met the team and we talked about fighting through this together - It'll be hard, and we'll all take a hit, but we'll get through together. By the following Monday we couldn't even have receptionists in the clinic, had over 100 cancellations that Monday morning and were down to one therapist (me) to see those brave and sore enough to come out.
It was all so sudden! Ten years practically to the day that AFBPhysio opened, we were about to shut. To say it was humbling watching all that hard work just dissolve would be an understatement. I kept saying "I'll just stay here and see those who really need it as long as I can." It was incredible to sit in the rooms and share everyone's personal experience with this unfolding pandemic. Experiences ranged from school teachers who felt such rage, to the Mums expected to work from home and home school their kids at the same time, grandparents who couldn't cuddle the little ones, people who couldn't attend funerals, people diagnosed with cancer, and brides cancelling wedding. Then there was the government workers, those from "essential" industries and self-funded retirees who would call me and say "Nothing’s changed for us, how can we help you stay afloat?". It was like nothing you could imagine. It was also personally exhausting and, like so many of my patients, I let the diet and exercise go at the time that I needed it the most.
The pain presentations took on themes too, and stress and fear were driving a lot of it. The gyms and pools closing exposed a lot of people who were doing so well to maintain their bodies. The first few weeks working at the kitchen table "office" were disastrous, the attempts to stay fit at home via Youtube sometimes humorous, all the extra precautions when looking after elderly loved ones were heartbreaking. These and more were just constant reminders that we are social creatures and isolation does not suit us.
During all of this I had the hardest moment of my career when I had to tell my reception team, the best team in allied health care anywhere, that in adapting the clinic and preparing for a likely recession I was not going to reopen the reception. At the end of the day, I opened this clinic to be the physio I wanted to be, not a businessman, and that experience reminded me how ill-equipped I am to carry out such tough decisions; it honestly tore me apart. Some of our therapists have also taken the opportunity to move on from the clinic and I am sad to say that we are have lost physios and massage therapists too.
I am so proud of everyone in our team through all of this, not just those who are left. It's been really hard, but they've shown true spirit and proved why we have such a great patient community. When those of us remaining would talk about what to do next, we just had no idea what the "next" could even be. Everything was changing so fast and as WA started to control the first wave, we started to see more people coming back to the clinic. It was strange to feel some buzz again and so special, and it pushed us again to lift our game. While things like social media posts, newsletters and footy tipping fell by the wayside, we were challenged to focus on getting the important things right.
Our remaining therapy team of Charlie, Toni, Diana and Katie (who's on maternity leave) really got down in the mud with me, when things looked really grim, and they adapted and took to the challenge better than I could have asked for. With the restrictions, we've had to space out our appointments, and for myself this meant only one room and halving the number of patients I can see each day. For me, the key to succeeding was to adapt without putting up our fees and I'm pleased to say we've managed this. While a lot of us are taking a hit out there, so are we in the clinic, but it's come with the unexpected benefits of being able to take more time with our patients and deliver an even higher level of care.
Physios and massage therapists taking payments, doing laundry, answering phones, following up email inquiries? This is the "new normal" at AFBPhysio. We're still learning, and we realise now just how amazingly well our reception team looked after us, but this is what we must do to survive in the new world. Annalisa is still helping us out with admin, and my wife Lorren is coming in during the week to give us a hand too. It's a much more humble clinic these days.
For myself, I really burnt out at the end. I couldn't keep carrying everything and had to scale things back and focus more on my own physical and mental health and that of my family. So the silver lining of all of this is that after almost 20 years of being a physio I am no longer working Saturdays - I'll leave that to the younger therapists. I've spent more time with my wife and kids these last few weeks than in years before that. And not racing between two rooms means I can genuinely engage my patients better and achieve even more. I'm really proud of what the clinic is evolving into and I feel better at the end of each shift than at any time in my career. We've got a great team who are committed to delivering the best care possible in the current environment.
To our patient community as a whole, I simply say thanks. There has been so much support, and so many individual acts of kindness that honestly topped me up when I was so low and exhausted. I stayed open through the whole first-wave lock down to care for my patient community... I couldn't conceive how much you'd be caring for me too. I am in your debt and you've given me the spark to spring back better than ever.
Please reach out if you'd like to share your experience, or your thoughts on what I've shared here and please come back to the clinic if you need us, we're here to help.