20 Questions: Karen McCain, PT, DPT, NCS

Last Updated on August 30, 2022 by Laura Turner

Karen McCain
Karen McCain

Karen McCain, PT,  DPT, NCS is assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas Department of Physical Therapy, School of Health Professions, as well as associate director of the David M. Crowley Laboratory for Research and Rehabilitation, School of Health Professions, for the same university.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in speech language pathology (SLP) from the University of North Texas, and then her bachelor’s degree in physical therapy from University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. McCain earned her doctor of physical therapy from Regis University in Denver, Colorado. She is a board certified clinical specialist in neurologic physical therapy from the American Physical Therapy Association.

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Prior to her current position, McCain was a physical therapist and rehabilitation services supervisor at Medical City Dallas Hospital. She has also worked in the outpatient department at North Central Medical Center in McKinney, Texas, and as a PT and research coordinator at Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation in Dallas. In academics, McCain has been a guest faculty at Texas Woman’s University, and affiliate faculty in the Department of Physical Therapy at Regis University.

She has been published in Topics in Stroke Rehabilitation and Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and she is currently a continuing education reviewer for Texas Physical Therapy Association. McCain is a member of the Neurologic Specialization Academy of Content Experts; American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), Neurology Section of APTA, Education Section of the APTA, and Texas Physical Therapy Association.

When did you first decide to become a PT? Why?
I first decided to become a PT in 1989. I had completed a bachelor’s degree nine years earlier in speech and language pathology, but did not pursue a master’s degree in that field of study. I had never even heard of physical therapy until a relative of mine broke her hip. While visiting her in the hospital, I saw physical therapy for the first time. The therapists who came to help her get out of bed and walk with her were so patient and seemed to enjoy their work immensely. It was as if a switch was turned on. I knew almost immediately that I wanted to be a PT if at all possible.

How/why did you choose the PT school you went to?
I chose UT Southwestern because the school was in Dallas where I lived. It also had an excellent reputation and I really liked that it was part of the medical center. The faculty person that I visited with (who now happens to be our Chair) was so enthusiastic and welcoming that it seemed like a perfect fit. I am now part of the faculty at UT Southwestern and it is wonderful to be home.

What surprised you the most about PT school?
It has been a while now since I was in PT school, but I think what surprised me most is what surprises our students today, and that is the volume of work. There is an enormous amount of information that must be absorbed (and remembered!) over a fairly short period of time.

What was it like finding a job in your chosen career field? What were your options and why did you decide what you did?
My first job after PT school was at the same facility where I worked as a technician before I started PT school. I did not plan on returning to work as a therapist there, but it just worked out that way. I stayed there for seven years and found it to be a wonderful learning environment. At the time, as it is today, there were lots of job options, but I chose that facility because I knew the people and I knew that it was a collaborative environment and one that would provide opportunities for development.

If you had it to do all over again, would you still become a PT? (Why or why not? What would you have done instead?)
I sometimes regret that I did not pursue physical therapy right out of the gate, so to speak. I went a different direction initially and only found PT after almost 10 years. As for pursuing PT, I would do it over and over again! I love being a PT. It is a rewarding, challenging, exciting and stimulating job. It is such a joy to be able to go to work and know that you will be able to help someone who is experiencing challenges.

Has being a PT met your expectations? Why?
PT has greatly exceeded my expectations! I knew that I liked the idea of PT, i.e. helping people, being involved in the medical field, but I never expected to enjoy the people and the challenges of the job as much as I have. As my career has progressed, I have been able to pursue many things, including teaching and research. It is a job that has provided opportunities rewards in many areas.

What do you like most about being a PT?
I like getting to know the patients and being able to figure out ways to help them get better. I work with people who are recovering from neurological injuries, so sometimes it is not easy to figure out what can be done to help them. The patients are fabulous! I have made wonderful friends and had my life is immensely enriched by my interactions with my patients.

What do you like least about being a PT?
I don’t like that everyone cannot get the care that I think they need, primarily because of funding/insurance restrictions. It is very frustrating to not be able to do what I think should be done because of such limitations. Everyone deserves the same level of care.

Describe a typical day at work.
My days now are divided between teaching, doing research, and treating patients. It is hard to even describe a “typical” day because my job has an amazing amount of variety to it.

What was a typical day like when you were in practice?
Even when I was treating patients full time, each day was different because the patients were always different. It is not a job that is boring, to say the least!

On average: How many hours a week do you work? How many hours do you sleep per night? How many weeks of vacation do you take?
As a professor in a university setting, I work about 45 to 50 hours per week as there is often work that must be done beyond an eight hour day. I almost always get at least seven hours of sleep a night. I must to function at work! I usually take at least three weeks of vacation a year.

Do you have family, and if so, do you have enough time to spend with them?
I am married and have a wonderful husband and four step-children (grown) and two grand-children. My family is very important to me and I spend as much time with them as possible. I am generally satisfied with the time I have to spend with them.

Are you satisfied with your income?

If you took out educational loans, is/was paying them back a financial strain?
My loans were a long time ago when interest rates were not very high, so they were not a burden.

In your position now, knowing what you do – what would you say to yourself 10 years ago?
I would say “WOW!” You have no idea where this job is going to take you! I never saw myself in academia, doing the things I am doing now. I spent 15 years as a clinician before becoming a faculty member. I would not trade one day of that time, because I think it makes me a better teacher. I also love what I am doing now, getting to be involved in the education of a new generation of therapists. I learn so much from them!

What information/advice do you wish you had known when you were pre PT school?
I wish I had known better about how all of the information tied together. It was often hard when I was doing prerequisites to know how that information was really tied to being a physical therapist. There is a reason for those courses, but it was not always clear what the purpose was. That made integrating the information more challenging.

From your perspective, what is the biggest problem in healthcare today?
The biggest problem is the insurance crisis. We have so many people who don’t have even basic healthcare services because they have no funding for it. This is creating a crisis, because many of these people will end up in the medical system when their health has deteriorated to a critical level. It is backwards. There is nowhere near enough emphasis on prevention and wellness.

Where do you see PT in 10 years?
I think PT will be a viable, vibrant career in 10 years, because people will always need help with rehabilitation of many kinds. Exactly what the healthcare landscape will look like is anyone’s guess. We have made great strides in advancing the curriculum and training for our new graduates, hopefully to secure a place for them in an ever-changing healthcare environment.

What types of outreach/volunteer work do you do, if any?
There are many opportunities for outreach associated with the University that I participate in. I also serve on the board of a not-for-profit organization that is dedicated to improving the lives of persons living with brain injury. My church also provides many outreach opportunities.

Do you have any final piece of advice for students interested in pursuing PT as a career?
This is a great job! It requires a great deal of effort and dedication, but you have the opportunity every day to positively impact the lives of people. I can’t imagine anything better!