Kristin Marie Pifer

IMG_0286 When the following interview was conducted, Kristin Marie Pifer, Laguna Pueblo, PT had just she completed the Master of Science degree in physical therapy at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. At her graduation she received three awards: the Herbert J. Levy Humanitarian Award, the Jody Delehanty Award, and the Physical Therapy Rural Scholarship. The faculty nominated her for the humanitarian award; her classmates nominated her for the Jody Delehanty Award. A brief update of Kristin's career and life follows this article.

Beginning a New Career

Congratulations on your graduation and your awards.

I was blown away by the awards. Any one of my classmates would have deserved them. I felt very privileged. I was in a wonderful class.

I’m sure you were very deserving of these awards. What did you do after graduation?

I moved home to Albuquerque to study for my boards. In July I married my husband, Judah Pifer. We moved to Tucson where Judah is a first year medical student at the University of Arizona School of Medicine. I took the national boards and passed them. I interviewed for jobs and was offered a few positions. I decided to work for Healthsouth Rehabilitation Institute of Tucson. I started out doing out-patient work. I got wonderful exposure to a wide variety of patients. Now I’m doing in-patient care at the same facility. I’m working primarily with patients with Parkinson’s Disease and a few who have had strokes. We also have some patients who have had total replacements of their knees or hips. A few patients have had cardiac surgery. We give them endurance training. Some other patients also need endurance training because they’ve had pneumonia or another condition that has weakened them.

The Tucson Medical Center and University Medical Center refer patients to us. These patients need additional care before they go home or before they go to another facility. We try to help these people become more independent. I’m really enjoying the fast pace of this work.

That’s terrific. What led you to decide to go into the field of physical therapy?

When my great grandfather died, my great grandmother moved from the reservation to live with us. I was in middle school. She was my roommate. Every morning when I woke up, she’d be doing her leg exercises in her bed. Her legs would stick straight up in the air. She was an amazing lady. Ever since then I’ve been interested in the human body, especially in the elderly population.

Recently Dad told me that my other great grandmother had a role on the reservation as a healer. She wasn’t a bonesetter, but she worked with people with illnesses or soreness. She touched and healed. She talked to people and let them have release.

I thought I would like to go into the health care field, probably as a physician. Then in high school I played basketball and ran cross-country and track. Like most athletes, I had knee injuries. I had surgery and had to go through some physical therapy. I worked with an amazing physical therapist. She helped me reach my goal of playing in the state basketball tournament. I fell in love with physical therapy because she worked miracles on me, helping me get stronger and back on my feet. Unfortunately, our team got second place. But just being able to play was huge for me.

I decided to get to know the profession by volunteering. I got a job working as a PT technician in a hospital while I was completing my undergrad work at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.

What did you do as a physical therapy technician?

I worked under the supervision of a PT at Flagstaff Medical Center in the hospital. I got to have a lot of patient care. They would tell me what the patient’s situation was, for example if the patient had total hip surgery or total knee surgery, or if the patient was recovering from a stroke. They would tell me what the goals were for the patient, what exercises I needed to work on with the patient, and whether I needed to help the patient practice walking with an assisted device, like a walker. I also worked in the rehab gym with more complex patients, such as people with spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries.

I met wonderful people at the hospital in nursing, physical therapy, and, speech therapy. Since the Grand Canyon is in that area, I got exposed to patients from a lot of different cultures. The Grand Canyon is in the heart of the Navajo Nation. Unless you have an interpreter right there when you’re working with someone who speaks Navajo, it’s hard to get your point across. Some of the other staff and I tried our best to learn Navajo.

Good for you.

Some of the Grandmothers laughed at us. We couldn’t quite pronounce everything correctly, but they knew we were trying.

I imagine they appreciated that.

Yea. It was a lot of fun.

What percentage of the people you worked with were Native?

About 20 or 25%. The rest were visitors from a whole bunch of cultures who had broken bones and head injuries because they were trying to get the best view of the Grand Canyon.

How long did you work at the medical center?

I worked there for two and one-half years. Before that I worked with people with developmental disabilities at the Hozhoni Foundation for the Handicapped in Flagstaff. It was a pretty big challenge to work in a group home setting with people with a wide variety of developmental disabilities. For about a year, I worked there on weekends. I needed to make a little money, and I wanted to be in the health care field. I enjoyed working with people with developmental disabilities because my Mom is director of the Association for Retarded Citizens of Albuquerque. Now it’s called ARCA.

Was your mother an influence in your getting into the health field?

Absolutely, my entire family has been a huge influence and support. Unfortunately a lot of our family members have had health problems. I always wanted to know more about certain disabilities and diagnoses. I got plenty of exposure through my family.

Through my mother’s work I got comfortable with people that are a little bit different than you or I. I wanted to be of assistance to them in any way possible. I wanted to make their lives as independent and rewarding as possible. That led me to physical therapy because a lot of a PT’s work is promoting wellness and improving physical abilities.

In the last year of the physical therapy program I worked with children with development delays. We tried to get them on track, so when they’re older they won’t have difficulties in their every day life. We want them to be able to play with other kids and be able to do all the wonderful things that kids do.

Can you please describe the master’s program in physical therapy that you did at the University of Colorado.

You go 24 months straight through with no breaks except for Christmas and a few days between quarters. That doesn’t leave time for much else. In the program at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center there are 24 weeks of clinical education. You spend the rest of the time in the classroom. The clinical work is interspersed with the classroom work. That’s good because when you’re out there, you realize why you need more class work. The last quarter is all clinical. You are gradually given more independence.

We also had practicals throughout the coursework in orthopedics and neurology. We were presented with cases in which either a classmate or instructor would be the patient. We practiced problem-solving and developing goals and treatment plan, just like we need to do in clinical settings. Our program stresses evidence-based practice. We needed to keep up on new research and journal articles.

I learned so much not only from our wonderful instructors but also from my classmates. They all came in with different experiences and perspectives.

I’m interested in rural health, so I had three rural clinical affiliations. I spent two weeks in the town of Bayfield in Southern Colorado. That experience helped me see what I needed to learn. I went back to school for a quarter. Then I returned to Bayfield where I was able to apply what I learned. I also did a rural affiliation in Wyoming.

For your last clinical experience, you were selected to work at the prestigious Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in California. What was that like?

I felt very privileged to participate in such a wonderful program and learn and grow so much in my last clinical affiliation. The patient population was very diverse. I worked primarily on the stroke gerontology unit, but I was also exposed to people with spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries and other neurological problems. The program is all in-patient [hospitalized patients].

There was a wonderful team approach to rehabilitation. The team included physicians, physician assistants, OTs [occupational therapists], speech therapists, nurses, PTs, family members, and care givers. The patient was also seen as a member of the team.

How did the team work together?

We met weekly as a whole team, but we also communicated with each other every day. If there was a family conference, we also met together.

My understanding is that you had a special student position at Rancho.

They have a slot for students who are interested in cultural sensitivity and have a background in incorporating cultural sensitivity into patient care. The application process is competitive. I felt very lucky to be selected. While I was at Rancho, I presented information about cultural sensitivity to an audience that included PTs, OTs, a few speech therapists and a PA. I shared my background and talked about things like needing to find out from patients what their goals are and what they want to focus on for rehabilitation. I talked about the need to be open and receptive and incorporating cultural needs. We also discussed how the patients’ goals aren’t always what we as therapists want.

Did you and the other students at Rancho have any other special learning opportunities?

We had classes where we learned from experienced staff members and from each other. We presented patients that we needed help with, and we got ideas from the group. We also problem solved together.

Therapists who specialized in areas, such as movement disorders, also made special presentations to us. It was wonderful because usually after the presentation we could try out the new ideas with our patients.

What are your long-term dreams for your career?

Some day I hope to work on a reservation in a rural area. My program required at least one clinical in rural or underserved areas. The three affiliations that I did showed me and the other students that we’re needed. I picture myself in a four-wheel drive vehicle on a reservation. Depending on how family life goes, I’d like to do that some day. I think my husband would too.

Would you encourage our readers to consider a career in physical therapy?

Yes. There are so many opportunities. You can work in hospitals, out-patient centers, home health care facilities, nursing homes, pediatric rehabilitation centers, and schools. You can work with so many different populations – orthopedic, neurologic, pediatric, geriatric. You can be an educator or researcher. Some graduates have told us how they’ve created their own jobs. There are so many avenues. You can move around and do different things during your career. You can change if you feel uncomfortable, or you can change because you want to grow more.

The students, faculty, and professionals I’m meeting seem to all have a love for life. They find joy in being physical and living a healthy life. They have a zest for working with people.

They sound like wonderful people to be with.


What kinds of courses would you encourage students to take if they want to become physical therapists?

Anything that will expose them to a lot of the sciences. I got my degree in exercise science with a minor in chemistry. A lot of the students in my physical therapy program had degrees in kinesiology and physiology. You need a lot of the biological sciences and chemistry along with physics. But there were students in our program with degrees in performing arts and liberal arts.

Do you think there is any special need for Native American physical therapists?

People who speak the language and understand the culture are much needed and appreciated by people who may be underserved. It’s important to be able to identify with and be compassionate with and understand what’s important to the culture. I think being Native American and serving Native Americans would be ideal. There certainly are people, though, who aren’t Native who go out of their way to communicate the best that they can.

When I was working at Flagstaff Medical Center, some patients had different ceremonies that maybe not all the staff could understand. We tried to be sensitive to the importance of the family being present. We tried to honor and incorporate their traditions, like having their container of tea from the medicine man on their bedside table. Getting well involves so many dimensions.

What advice would you give to readers who would like to consider careers in physical therapy?

As early as possible, get some exposure to the PT profession or to other health care professions, so you know what you’re getting into. During high school or even middle school, you can do volunteer work in clinics or hospitals. You probably won’t be able to have as much patient contact as you’d like, but, particularly if you shadow a practitioner, you’ll get enough exposure so you can make an educated guess as to whether you want to make the huge commitment that’s needed.

Don’t take science courses lightly. There are vital part of your education and every health care field. In college find out what prerequisites you need for a masters or doctoral program. Sign up for those courses.

Thanks for sharing your story.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2003 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is Burgess Roye, Ponca.)

Update 2007

Kristin is on leave from her work with Healthsouth Rehabilitation Institute of Tucson where she continued to focus on patients with neurological problems, such as head injuries, stroke, and Parkinson's Disease. Many of her patients had been in the hospital and needed care that would enable them to return to their homes. Kristin was a team leader and worked with occupational therapists and speech therapists in caring for patients.

Currently, Kristen is enjoying being a full-time mother to Preston James who was born in March, 2007. When Preston is older, Kristin intends to return to work part-time. Kristin's husband, Judah, finished medical school and is now doing a residency in orthopedic medicine.