Field Talk is a monthly blog post sharing the voices of early childhood providers who serve or have served military families of young children with disabilities (birth to 5 years old). We hope you find it to be educational, personable, and encouraging.
This month we welcome Ellen Argo, PT. Ellen works at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville, TN . This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Describe your current role.
I am a Physical Therapist, and currently work as an Assistant Manager in the Pediatric Rehabilitation Department at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. Fifty percent of my job duties are administrative and 50% are in patient care, mainly in the Acute Care and NICU setting.
What’s your favorite part of your current job?
Interacting with patients and their families is by far my favorite part of my job.
Tell us about experiences you have had working with military families.
Although my current position is in an acute care setting, I have worked with military families in the outpatient setting as well. During the past 15 years, I worked with military families who have had children in the NICU, children who have had acute illnesses or injuries and are in the hospital, and children who need outpatient physical therapy due to congenital, chronic, or acute conditions or injuries. I have worked with children from birth to 21 years of age.
How did you find yourself working with military families?
I moved to Clarksville, TN, a “military town” due to its proximity to Ft. Campbell, and began working in a pediatric outpatient clinic in 2002. I transitioned to a job at Vanderbilt in 2003 and because of its nature as a major children’s hospital, I continued to work with military families and their children there. Since then I have worked in another outpatient pediatric setting in Clarksville, TN, and continued at Vanderbilt as well.
Describe a rewarding experience working with military families.
There are SO many that it’s hard to choose only one! I once worked in the NICU with a family whose baby was born prematurely and had several significant health issues. The father was deployed but when the baby was born and the health issues were apparent, the father was allowed to come home for a period of time. On the day before he was supposed to return overseas, he and the mother were visiting the baby in the hospital and they arrived as I was beginning the baby’s PT session for the day. I had the honor of getting to teach the father how to perform infant massage on his tiny daughter—and it was the first time he was able to hold her.
Describe a challenging experience working with military families.
Early in my career working with military families I found it challenging when I needed to help a family order equipment or orthotics. Negotiating the Tricare system was a little different than working with commercial insurance.
From your experience, how are military families similar and different from other types of families? How do you change your practice between families?
All families want the best for their children and will go to any length to get it. It seems to me that military families rely more on friends and other non-family relationships for assistance with “life.” With deployments and trainings, frequently families often have only one parent or neither parent present and able to participate in therapy sessions. The internet and other technological advances have made it possible for the parent who is not present physically to participate in other ways such as videos of activities for caregivers to do at home with a child or “Skyping” to discuss a child’s progress.
As providers, how can we support military parents who are deployed or away frequently due to trainings/school?
It is important to remember that as providers it is not our job to tell families what to do, but rather, to help educate families so that they can make the best decisions for their children and families. The work of PT does not happen in the clinic or during the PT session-it happens at home, when the family is playing with, caring for, or otherwise interacting with their child. As providers it is imperative that we avoid judging families who are not able to follow through with our recommendations and work with the families to identify barriers and create recommendations that work within the family structure.
Describe a specific stressor that military families with whom you have worked have shared or experienced.
One stressor of deployments is the knowledge that the family members at home may or may not have regarding the deployed family member’s safety and when contact is infrequent and/or limited. I remember one occasion when a pre-teen patient arrived at the clinic for physical therapy with her mom, who was visibly distressed. As we began the session, the mother discreetly explained to me that earlier in the day she had received a call from the father, who was deployed. She explained that he had been with his unit earlier in the day when it was attacked. There had been one fatality and several injuries, although the father was not physically injured. The father had called to alert the family that he was ok, but he couldn’t talk on the phone for long or give more information. The mother chose to bring her child to PT to maintain a sense of “normalcy” for her and the child, but the stress of the situation clearly had an impact on the child’s performance that day.
What “insider” tips or advice do you have for service providers working with military families who have young children with disabilities?
Become educated about the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) and develop rapport with someone at the EFMP program. That was invaluable for me.
If you could change or improve one thing for military families with young children with disabilities, what would it be?
At Vanderbilt I work with numerous providers, many who do not understand the challenges faced by military families. I would love if non-military providers had more information so they could understand the challenges and rewards of military life. The OneOp blog is a great opportunity!
What types of resources have you sought out to feel more confident and competent at meeting the specific needs of military families? (e.g., trainings, blog posts, organizations, etc.)
I have worked to develop rapport with people who are on staff with Educational and Developmental Intervention Services (EDIS) and EFMP.