Serving our men: 16 weeks on an Air Force base in Biloxi, Mississippi

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The arrival of Fall also marks the return of 41 third-year physical therapy students back to campus for our final year. We have five more months of academic coursework before we will be ushered back into the clinic (some of us needing more nudging than others, such as yours truly), and then it’s onto graduation in May and boards in July.

For the past four months, we have been practicing physical therapy in hospitals and clinics around the country, some staying at UCSF and others flyng all the way to Hawaii.  Somewhere in the middle, four of us ventured to Biloxi, Mississippi to complete our rotation with the Air Force.

According to The Atlantic, Mississippi ranks last as America’s worst state for healthcare. As an optimistic physical enthusiast, one may choose instead to look at that as inspiration for change!

Our patients at the Air Force, however, did not fit the picture we Westerners may have of obese, fried chicken-loving Southerners (disclaimer: stereotypes are not mine). Our military patients were some of America’s fittest, and reigning them in from their injury-inducing activities was actually a bigger challenge.

With that in mind, here are the top 7 culture shocks (professionally and personally) that I experienced during my rotation.

1.    Physical therapists in the military have the privilege of ordering imaging, prescribing medications, and writing “profiles” for patients to exclude them from participating in required physical fitness. We also provide direct access in special cases—this involved waking up before the sunrise and treating Combat Controllers (the Air Force version of the Navy Seals).

2.    Active duty personnel are America’s athletes, minus the spectators sitting in a stadium to watch them work out. Physical fitness is a strong component of performance rating in the military. The Combat Controllers, for instance, are young men who excel in twice daily workouts that involve intense cross training, marching with eighty pound sacks and more push ups than you and I would care to count. If they are not at their peak performance, then they are not deployment-ready, and America suffers.

3.     Everyone must participate in physical fitness training (unless you have been granted the aforementioned “profile,” which is not the privilege it sounds like). For our squadron, it meant 6:30am Wednesday morning “Flight Fitness,” which involved playing football, softball, volleyball and ultimate Frisbee. I think they tried extra hard to make it fun for us interns, and I regret that I naturally dislike sports. Besides the physical therapists, who are generally in pretty good shape, half of our squadron were young men in their early twenties who routinely hit home runs and made touchdowns. I, on the other hand, jammed my finger playing football the one time I tried to be a team player.

4.      Everything is cheaper outside of San Francisco. At the Air Force base, my 20 oz Diet Coke was twenty-five cents, a cookie was sixty cents, and a side of cheese fries was under a dollar.

5.      If you like watching trucks drive by the side of the road, you’d agree that Mississippi has a pretty awesome social scene. One Friday afternoon, all of Biloxi parked by the side of the road, sat in the car seats they removed from their cars and watched other Biloxians drive by in their trucks. And by trucks, I mean Fords, Toyotas and Chevys you find everywhere else but San Francisco, just with monster wheels instead of normal wheels.

6.      Barbeque is a thing. Sorry Hunt’s, Jack Daniel’s, and Sweet Baby Ray’s, you don’t really know what you’re doing. Barbeque in Mississippi involves tender meat sliding right off the rib when you tilt it against gravity. If your ribs don’t do that, they’re not qualified to be barbeque.

7.      Being really friendly is also a thing. So is talking so slowly you forget the topic, walking so slowly you’re melted by the humidity, and in general, lots of slowness. But it’s a nice change from running every time to catch the MUNI or struggling to keep up with the quick pace here in our city.