Jennifer A.

Lymphedema Coordinator, DCH Physical Rehabilitation

Working in Health Care: Physical Therapist Helps Patients through Their Cancer Journey

Background/Education

Adams, who hails from Marietta, Georgia, joined DCH in September 2009. In college, she first studied athletic training but changed majors. She earned a bachelor of science degree in public health from The University of Alabama and her doctorate of physical therapy at Georgia State University.

 

She is a certified lymphedema therapist and also holds oncology rehab certifications. The lymphedema certification required a 10-day course, some of it online. The oncology rehab education was via online programs.

 

Department Overview/My Duties

Adams works four days a week at DCH Physical Rehabilitation, a comprehensive physical and occupational therapy clinic located next to The SpineCare Center on Ruby Tyler Parkway in Tuscaloosa. It offers physical, hand, lymphedema, aquatic and industrial therapy services to outpatients. It also features a clinic-based fitness program called Back to Life.

 

Patients and Lymphedema

While some people can be born with lymphedema, most develop it from cancer treatment. Lymphedema will affect 20 to 50 percent of cancer patients.

 

If a patient has breast cancer surgery plus radiation, DCH automatically does a lymphedema screening. It’s an opportunity to educate these patients about their condition and how physical therapy can be used to treat it, Adams explained.

 

Lymphedema causes painful swelling in the arms and trunk. In sessions lasting about an hour, Adams uses massage and then a pump to reroute the fluid causing the swelling, which is called the decongestive phase. She will then fit the patient with garments, such as a compression sleeve for the upper arm, which supports the tissue and keeps it from filling back up with fluid. Patients can get wounds and skin hardening if the condition isn’t treated.

 

Patients will usually attend about three sessions per week with Adams, but she also guides them in self-treatment such as exercise.

“As a physical therapist, I’m always thinking of function. Almost all of my patients have pain with the swelling. The idea is to get them moving and close to where they were before,” Adams said.

She coordinates with oncologists at the Lewis and Faye Manderson Cancer Center, where she used to work. She also may see patients from the DCH Wound Healing Center. Adams treats about 100 new patients per year.

While lymphedema is her specialty, she treats all patients who may need physical therapy. She chose to switch to Physical Rehab from the Cancer Center because it offers patients more avenues (a therapy pool, for one) to get back to their normal activities.

 

What I Like About My Job

“I spend a lot of time with my patients. I get to learn about them and their journey.” Many are oncology patients. “Yes, that’s hard. They’ve possibly lost a breast and then they have this big arm that they feel they have to explain to the public. But I find my patients are so positive. They say, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff.’ I hope I can make a hard time in their lives more positive. It’s important to remember that it’s a person with cancer – don’t define them by their diagnosis.”

 

What’s Challenging

“Lymphedema itself is challenging. It can be a stubborn, chronic issue. The patient has to do the work. We can give them guidance, but the hard work is on them.”

 

Career Advice for Greenhorns

“I know it sounds cliché, but find something you enjoy. I would also tell [young people] that whatever [career] they choose, be fully committed. When I’m here [at work], patients get all of me.”