When a recipient of the Golden Hands Award says that cycling 30 km in a day is an ‘easy ride’ – you stop and listen. Though Patricia Fonstad, or Pat as her patients lovingly call her, is nearing the end of her career, her years as a MSK Clinical Specialist have taught her a thing or two that still reward her life today.

No one gets to this stage in their career by themselves; I have stood on the shoulders of many giants en route. The accumulation of all of that was that I got a major award, but it belongs to all the people whose shoulders I stood on.

During the 1970’s, when Pat started her career, no one even knew what physiotherapy was. In high school when she volunteered as a candy striper she met a physiotherapist and got a taste for the industry, liking the autonomy of the job in comparison to nursing. Pat wanted a certain freedom and ability to make a difference in the lives of her patients that she felt physiotherapy would provide. She completed her undergrad at University of Manitoba, and went on to do her doctorate, years later in 2006, at Andrews University (Michigan).

Learning From Others

Moving on to Foothills Hospital, Pat started her career in the public sector – a time when very few private practices existed. It was during this time that she met a resident doctor by the name of Derrick Thompson. He stood out from the rest, and for good reason.

He was a cut above the other residents,” shares Pat. “He treated everyone with huge respect. He had no vision of being better than anyone else, but he was an outside of the box kind of thinker, a maverick. He would take an article about a patient’s case and tuck it in the jacket pocket of the patient’s chart so the staff could learn from it. Years later, I found myself doing the same thing – pinning an article to the bulletin board so I knew people could read it.” 

Her professional relationship and friendship with Derrick continued through the years, and when he wanted to look at a strategy of prevention for “preventable diseases” such as coronary heart or diabetes, he asked Pat to work alongside him. In working with corporate oil companies in downtown Calgary, the company that they started (along with some other like-minded people) provided classes and workshops on wellness, nutrition, and fitness. 

“He was a visionary; way ahead of his time.”

Building Her Career and Tough Choices 

Derrick and Pat worked together until she had her first baby in 1982. During that time, Pat’s husband got transferred to Canmore, and life took a turn. She was able to maintain part-time work at a private practice. The owner of the clinic in Canmore shared similar professional passions, and they opened a practice together. Pat continued to look for opportunity everywhere she went, and when it came time to move the family back to the “big city”, she found herself working in a private practice with many junior physiotherapists feeling quite unfulfilled. The more junior physiotherapists had neither the interest nor the skill-set to treat the complex patients so that caseload fell to Pat. 

“We were paid on a per-patient basis. I did the math and it was $4 an hour for what I was doing. It was so demoralizing at that point!”

When things couldn’t get any worse, Derrick reached out, wanting her back at the private wellness clinic they had started together years prior. An easy decision, Pat left the private practice clinic, and within a month, was fully booked with new clients and never looked back. 

“Derrick taught me to always strive to be the best that I could be. He taught me to be questioning and inquisitive. He had this wonderful 80/20 rule, ‘You need to like 80% of what you do and 20% is going to have crap. If that ratio ever changes, do something about it.” 

Pat began working with doctors that made her feel like an equal; in tandem. In collaborating with the Calgary Chronic Pain Centre her skill-set in working with chronic pain cases came in handy. She eventually started with them on salary, and soon realized the weight of her choice.

“I realized I was busier doing more jobs, committees, more things than I had done 20 years before and I realized that the pendulum had swung the wrong way, so instead of winding down I was winding up, and it was sucking some joy out of life. The Chronic Pain Centre was the job that tied me to time and place. So, I left them after a year, and we (Pat and her husband) bought the place in Palm Desert.”

Choosing the Voices That You Let In

And that is where they ‘winter’ to this day. Maintaining some clients while she’s home in Calgary, she is able to pursue passions alongside her husband. Exercise being a habit they’ve incorporated into their daily life, Pat has also established another habit that has served her well – a daily learning goal.

“This is what made the doctorate degree so easy for me. I’d get a patient and say ‘I want to learn something about that.’ I’d order an article and learn. When I did my degree, it just meant that someone else was telling me what to learn, but I got a degree out of it at the end.”

Alongside learning and staying active, Pat also teaches some online modules with Andrews University and McMasters University. After receiving sage advice throughout her life, she now gets to share her own pieces of wisdom with her students.

Pat is a fighter of the pigeonhole, the patient in chronic pain, and as it turns out, a fighter for herself. The shoulders she has stood on, have broadened her own.