Time Away – The Traveling PT Lifestyle

As I write this piece, I’m on a plane flying back to Hawaii from a couple weeks off work visiting with friends and family in New England. This flight is non-stop from JFK airport to Honolulu. While it is highly convenient to not have to make a connection on the West Coast, 11 hours in one seat is incredibly uncomfortably, and the lady in front of me is driving me nuts. The trip away from Hawaii was planned this winter while working in Aspen at my annual winter job there. My wife and I knew we were going to Hawaii for the original 13 week assignment, but weren’t sure if we would be extending our contracts for the fall. All the right things fell into place and we’ll be working in Hawaii until Thanksgiving. The break from work was a great 2 weeks away and got me reflecting about the traveling physical therapist lifestyle. As we fly back to Hawaii, the reality is setting in that we have another 3 months ahead of exploring some beautiful islands. I’ve been flipping through the pictures on my phone, looking at the last 3 months in Hawaii, and I feel fortunate to be getting back to a more peaceful and simple lifestyle than the last few busier (but awesome) days we just spent hanging out with friends in Boston, my home town.


The front yard at the cabin in Maine. (Or “Upta Camp” as any Mainer worth his salt would describe it.) Mountain, water, and a lack of people – what more could I possibly want!?

I don’t know when I really began to like a slower pace of life, but I’ve definitely grown away from being a “city guy”. The highlight of the vacation I’m currently returning from was a week up at my wife’s family cabin in the Northern Woods of Maine. Time spent just beyond where the paved road ends and out of reach of cell signal was a nice re-set to return to work feeling refreshed and ready to push through the next 13 weeks. The relaxation centered around daily dips in the lake and a few steep hikes in the surrounding mountains which I’ve become more-and-more familiar with over the years. Sure, I’m returning to work in a beautiful, peaceful place, but it’s still work and I believe strongly in regular time away to refresh the mind and stave off burn-out.

On the seat-back display here on the plane, I can see that we are cutting a South Westerly line across the country and that we are passing right over Aspen, the place I now consider home because of our yearly return there for work each winter. If I could get to a right hand window seat, I think I could look down and see town or some of the familiar valleys, or at least I-70. While skiing in the winter, I have frequently wondered where those high up planes might be going as they pass over the mountains, and now I wonder if anyone I know might be out hiking today looking up wondering where this plane is going. Strange to be so close, but so separated – if I could, I’d hop on the phone and call a couple people to let them know I’m waving down at them. Weird feeling.

Enjoying the Aspen back country with friends. "Traveling Physical Therapist" is really just a euphemism for glorified ski bum.

Enjoying the Aspen back country with friends. “Traveling Physical Therapist” is really just a euphemism for glorified ski bum. (Aspen Mountain in the background)

The Aspen connection was indirectly made through another “get away”. Growing up, my family would  travel in the summer to a rugged family cabin in the mountains outside of Colorado Springs. This cabin, also, is beyond the end of paved roads. It was my favorite place growing up and has been joined on my “favorite places list” in recent years by the cabin in Maine – along with handful of other special places. Visiting in the summer as a kid was my introduction to Colorado, and it is what eventually led me back to the mountains and to Aspen. I initially enjoyed Aspen primarily for the great access to culture without living in a city. While I still enjoy the concerts, the culture, and all the action Aspen has to offer, I now appreciate it more for the great access to extreme wilderness. Within a couple miles of walking out my front door, I can be deep in the mountains, away from much of the busy nonsense of life in the 21st century.

Another one of my more recently acquired favorite places is the island of Molokai where I will return to work tomorrow morning. Hawaii is the most geographically isolated place in the world, so it’s only natural that you can get off the grid pretty fast in many parts of the islands, but Molokai is even more isolated than most of the other islands. It offers a rural life that doesn’t have the conveniences of box stores or instant gratification through being able to get exactly what you want right when you want it, but I’ve learned to embrace that – sometimes it’s an easier life when you have to get by with what you have. I don’t know what the future holds for my relationship with Molokai (work? vacation?), but I believe it’s a place that will be a part of my life in the future. I often joke that I can’t stay in Molokai because the snow skiing is awful – I don’t think this joke ever goes over that well, but it’s the truth. I do need a healthy dose of slippery hills in my life. Skiing is my favorite mode of exercise and my favorite way to get my adrenaline fix. I don’t ever hoot and holler doing anything the way I do skiing on a great day.

We got invited back to camp in one of the valley's that Audrey Sutherland swam to in her book Paddling My Own Canoe. Unforgiving ocean, rugged land, beautiful place.

We got invited back to camp in one of the valley’s that Audrey Sutherland swam to in her book Paddling My Own Canoe (great book about getting away from it all). Unforgiving ocean, rugged land, beautiful place.

While visiting the Maine woods last week, I was reading a book by a woman,Audrey Sutherland, who had swum and paddled to many of the most remote valleys in Hawaii and later to many remote islands in Alaska. While she lived and worked on the more-busy island of Oahu where Honolulu is located, the book was mostly about her time away and the quiet and loneliness she needed to reset. I don’t necessarily crave loneliness like she did, but at times, I need the quiet for sure. When I read the book up in Maine in a quiet and peaceful place, I couldn’t help but think how connected these isolated places can be. That connection seems to be amplified as I fly from Maine to Hawaii while passing directly over my winter home in Aspen. For a small island with a population of only 8,000, I find it bizarre that I know at least 3 or 4 people on Molokai with a connection to the small town of Aspen, Colorado (also <8,000 residents).

I got to visit another one of my favorite places on this vacation. But this belongs in a different blog...

I got to visit another one of my favorite places on this vacation.

Sorry for the long blog, but I have nothing but time today – just about 3 hours until we land in Honolulu. I’ll run out of computer battery before I run out of words. I’ve taken the long way around on this story, but this is a blog about why I am a traveling Physical Therapist. I am not OK living a life built around working a job that keeps me from the places I love for all but a few days of the year. I want to constantly be surrounded by the places I love and to have easy access to the wilderness and quiet time that I am craving more and more often. The flexibility offered by the traveling-lifestyle and the opportunity to intimately discover and explore places that Kate and I love is the greatest reason to travel. I hope if you are considering traveling therapy that you too will seek out the places you really want to be. If there are great cities you want to experience, landscapes you want to explore, or beaches you want to lay on, go work there!

It has been a wonderful vacation. I saw a lot of people and places that were great to visit with. Time to get back to work this week, but I know when the work week is done, next weekend holds another adventure in the mountains and ocean right outside my door. For me, that’s what it’s all about, working where I want to live and not the other way around.

Working 40 hours is Overrated

I’ve come to believe that 40 hours per work week is just too many to be working. There’s so much going on in the world, so much more I could be doing than hanging out indoors for 40 hours each week. Who came up with 40 hours being the magical working amount anyways? On one tougher-than-average day at work, I once asked this question out-loud, more to myself than to anyone else, but someone within earshot replied, “Henry Ford”. I’ve never fact-checked this answer, but I was told with such confidence that Henry Ford had set the standard of the 40 hour work week for his workers, that I have accepted this as cold, hard fact. Despite my distaste for a full 40 hours at work each week, I have been finding myself accruing overtime more and more frequently.

Here I am complaining about how hard I worked this winter. This is one of the views from the PT gym at work, it could be much, much worse.

I used to insist on having a 40 hour guarantee on my travel contracts, meaning that even if there weren’t enough patients, I was contractually allowed to spend 40 hours at work each week and get paid for it. Of course, if you find yourself in the cooshy position of having more guaranteed hours than actual work, it behooves you to keep busy however you can – cleaning the hydroculator, scrubbing a whirlpool, updating facility rehab protocols, etc. Sitting around at work reading a book or surfing Facebook is not a good look on anybody, no matter what your contract says. When I reflect on the last few years, I don’t ever remember sitting, twiddling my thumbs. I remember working for hospital departments that would unload their fulltime employees schedules and pack mine – it’s part of the gig as a traveler, you are a grunt-worker hired for the purpose of easing the load on the facility. None-the-less, having that 40 hour guarantee is a concrete way to make sure you’ll be gainfully employed during your contract. It’d be a shame to show up to your job in a far-off town expecting and needing 40 hours worth of pay and coming up short, so I still recommend securing a 40 hour guarantee in your contract whenever you can.

The job that I work every winter in Colorado (7 years running), has never offered 40 hours guaranteed. They used to guarantee nothing, but somewhere along the line adopted a 24 hour/week guarantee – the truth of it is, if therapists are consistently getting anywhere in the neighborhood of 24 hours, someone’s contract is getting canceled, because the department is overstaffed. It’s a unique situation there. The hospital has a view of 3 of the 4 ski mountains in town. If a lot of people are getting injured on the mountains, we’re busy; if tourism is down, or the ski conditions are forgiving to injuries, we can have our slow months. In past years I’ve frequently come in around 36 hours per week with a few weeks significantly higher and a few weeks lower. This year I worked my tail off. I worked a lot of 42-45 hour weeks this winter. That probably doesn’t sound like a lot to many people, especially anyone working in a field where there’s a machismo about hard work at the office – long hours, late nights, early mornings, and postural dysfunction are signs of dedication to the company! For me, 45 hours is my hell-on-earth. A standard week consists of 168 hours – 40 to work, 8 hours of sleep per night gives you another 56 hours gone – we’re already down to well less than half of our living, breathing hours after only work and sleep (I do appreciate my 8-hours-square per night). These calculations don’t even take into consideration the hours spent getting ready for work, the time commuting, and the time when you’re too pooped to do anything else because you’ve been working so damn hard. We’re in a work-centric society and I don’t care for our society’s priorities one bit. Take a hike, Henry Ford.

Traded in my winter view for a summery one. This is from the parking at lot at my current assignment - working a few too many hours... #HawaiiProbs

Traded in my winter view for a summery one in Hawaii. This is from the parking at lot at my current assignment where I’m not in the ocean nearly as much as I’d like… #HawaiiProbs

I have been looking forward to  coming back to my island oasis here on Molokai in Hawaii to have some good time to relax and get away from the fast pace of a >40 hour work week. My wife, Kate, had been guaranteed the 40 hour position out here, and I took the second-position at only 20 hours guaranteed per week. There were some other PT opportunities that I looked into, but nothing panned out. I was kind of looking forward to filling some of my spare hours working at the bike shop, or on a boat somehow, or as a pool cabana boy, or just having time to do more with this website. This week was my second week of work and I worked 6 days for about 45 hours. So much for relaxing. The island around me is most definitely running on serious Aloha-time while I’m busting my rump during the vast majority of the sun-filled hours. Last time I worked on the Big Island, 2 years ago, we ran into a similar situation – Kate had a 40 hour contract and I had set up an independent contract with no guaranteed hours. On that job, I had a full schedule with a couple weeks. …a developing pattern? As the summer moves along, I hope my work hours come back to earth and that Kate and I can each work 36 or 38 hours, not over the dreaded 40.

I’m going to continue asking for 40 hours guaranteed in my future contracts, but have grown more open to accepting contracts with less certain work hours. I’m beginning to wonder whether this pattern of always being busy at work is just something I’m experiencing, or is it a symptom in a larger, growing healthcare trend as the baby boomers age and as healthcare professions fail to keep up with the growing demand. I guess time will tell as we all slowly, but surely, burn out from long hours of high productivity.That’s kind of a bummer of a thought, and I hope it’s not the direction we’re headed. But the numbers don’t lie, everyone in rehab is going to be pretty busy for longer than the next 15 to 20 years. This means one thing for sure – travel therapy and temp employment will be an option for therapists for quite a while. So, if you’re looking at traveling, but not quite there yet, take your time, it’ll be here when you’re ready and you’ll have a blast when the time is right.

Well after all of that, I don’t want to sign off on any sort of sour note. I’m in Hawaii, making a fruitful living and very happy for it. A couple extra hours of work each week isn’t really what I want, but doing physical therapy in Hawaii is a fine way to spend 40-something hours each week – there are far less meaningful and satisfying things to be doing with my day, so I’m thankful for that.

More blogs to come soon. I plan to write lots. See you on the open road!