Last week I was watching yet another murder mystery on television with my workout–really, on any given day, it’s a good bet that I will be watching at least one murder mystery on television with my workout, sometimes two depending on how long they are–and this time it featured a character who had been seriously injured and could not walk. And whenever I see that, I wince, because I know that they’re more than 50% likely to do dodgy PT/OT on screen, and in fact they did.

See, on TV, PT and OT are the same thing. Here is what they both consist of: there are the two parallel bars at armpit height, and the person who cannot walk is supposed to walk between them, and the PT/OT/random relative of the person who cannot walk yells at them to walk. And mostly they eventually do. Isn’t that easy? Isn’t that great? Why can’t everybody walk unassisted by now! How straightforward it all is! And why do people bother to go to school to learn to do PT or OT when anyone–the janitor, the hospital administrator, in fact the random relative of the person who cannot walk–could quite easily do this task?


And I know that the actors who play these characters who cannot walk are usually themselves able-bodied. But the PT/OT characters never do anything like, for example, making sure the characters they are supposed to be helping are stepping down on the correct part of their foot, by which I mean the bottom. I know that gait problems are one of the things the able-bodied can see when they watch someone with assistive devices walking, but they’re also one of the things that therapy will be working to correct, and they don’t show up out of nowhere. “I was in a car accident, and now I walk on the sides of my feet for no reason!” No, and also no. There’s a reason you don’t see people with visible gait problems walking around without assistive devices very often: incurable gait problems make it very hard to walk without them. So if you’re aiming for unassisted walking, you’re going to try to correct the gait if at all possible. A therapist worth their salt will notice that you are setting your feet down sideways and will stop you and work to correct it. They may remove you from the Parallel Bars of Doom and set you to doing different exercises somewhere else.

But that can’t be right, because being shouted at to walk is the only therapy anyone who cannot walk needs, right?

Another thing that never happens: nobody on TV ever needs to be told to slow down and take a rest, because we always need to be yelled at to do more and try harder. So no physical therapist ever says, “You’re not doing yourself any more good here, you’re just wearing yourself out.” Even though in people close to me alone, I can think of four physical therapy examples where the therapist said, “Now for heaven’s sake don’t do more than X amount, because it won’t help and might hurt you.” But on TV, no. Never.

(Yes, I know that sometimes you do PT and are told to just do it for as much as you can stand, until you drop, etc. It’s just that this is the only mode I see represented on TV.)

This is just sloppy, and I’m very tired of it. Physical therapy and occupational therapy are not the same thing, and between them they cover all kinds of activities to rehabilitate all kinds of body systems. If you’re someone who writes fiction, please think about portraying something different for your PT or OT. If you don’t know what that might include, do some research. There are physical therapists and occupational therapists and lots and lots of people who have been through one or both, and I bet you can easily find boatloads of us who are willing to talk about our experiences and the details that do not involve walking on the sides of your feet between two bars and being yelled at.

Oh, wait. I’m being unfair. Sometimes people who can’t walk also get to go swimming for their PT/OT. Nothing much happens there except they go swimming. Well. I take it all back, then. I was very, very wrong.

Seriously, if you have some examples of PT/OT on TV done better than this, please recommend them to me in the comments.

One thought on “PT/OT, TV

  1. I am laughing so hard because my PT was making a similar comment recently, nearly word for word in some places. And then I sigh sadly because you’re right and TV is how most people learn things and they are learning the wrong things about PT and OT. (I <3 my PT. I can use my left arm now!)

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