A veteran comes home to Falmouth Hospital
Paula attained a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt in Taekwondo, which she mastered during her tour in Korea.
These days, retired Army Lt. Col. Paula Smith of Falmouth, can be found bustling around the Falmouth Hospital Rehabilitation Department checking in with her staff and patients. She is a physical therapist who wears many hats as director of Rehabilitation Services, Sleep Lab and EEG at Falmouth Hospital.
Smith is also a daughter who has come home. She grew up in Falmouth and her mother, Carole Knebel, worked in billing and the Breast Care Services at Falmouth Hospital from 1988-2008. Since her retirement, she has remained active as a volunteer eucharistic minister and a cashier in the cafeteria.
While Smith loves her job at Falmouth Hospital, it was just a little more than one year ago, that she was living and working in the military world. Her final military career assignment was health director for the Soldier for Life Program, Department of the Army, in Arlington, Virginia. This was just one of the many programs she created, originated and oversaw during her 20 years of military service.
At times, she dealt with overwhelming obstacles and challenges, but they didn’t stop her from getting the job done.
A motto, passed on to her by an Army Medical Specialist Corps chief, is “you bloom where you’re planted,” and it served her well throughout her military career.
Smith concedes that her journey to becoming a physical therapist was not only a path of discovery but achieved in a rather roundabout way.
“I had initially attended the University of Iowa studying veterinary medicine,” said Smith. “I stayed in that track for a couple of years and then caught the bug for communications. I changed my major, graduated with a degree in communications and started a sales job with the Falmouth Enterprise.”
While she enjoyed working in this area, with a goal of eventually going into broadcast journalism, she felt she needed a career that was a bit more “sure-footed” and decided to go back to the sciences.
A Journey To Physical Therapy
She did her research and found that physical therapy was an up-and-coming profession. She interviewed a couple of physical therapists who “seemed to like their jobs” she said. She took pre-requisite science courses at Cape Cod Community College. To make sure physical therapy was truly a career she wanted, she not only worked locally as a physical therapy aide, but also logged 2,000 volunteer hours.
“I worked in numerous therapy settings; hospitals in- an out-patient, equine therapy, school-based programs and military,” said Smith.
It was one opportunity in particular, at the Naval Station Newport, where she noticed that the physical therapists got to spend a lot of time with their patients, talking with them and focusing on education. They also worked closely with the techs doing treatments.
“I thought that was awesome,” said Smith.
When she started applying for colleges to major in physical therapy, she heard about a program from another aide, called the US Army Baylor University Graduate Program in Physical Therapy. College applications were expensive and he told her this application was free but she would have to join the Army.
“We laughed about it and then he dared me to apply,” said Smith. She took the dare. “I’ll fill it out and I’ll get there.”
She applied for the physical therapy program and was told she had to go through the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) first to be approved by the Army before she could apply. She attended the all-day testing that included a complete physical.
“They declined me because of a thyroid condition,” Smith said. “It was waiverable, but in order to apply for a waiver, I had to meet Army physical standards,” which meant she had to lose seven pounds.
“Tell me I can’t and I will. If I have a goal, I can adapt and problem solve and get to ‘yes.’ That’s really something that has translated into my civilian life because those same things are necessary. I’m pretty tenacious.”
She had two weeks to accomplish it and at the two-week mark, she drove to the Medical Entrance Processing Station.
“It turned out to be at the same time they closed the government,” said Smith. “I was out in the waiting room alone, no one was helping me. After about 20 minutes I knocked on the door and they said, ‘I’m sorry there is no one here to take your weight, do whatever what you need to do because the government is closed down.’
“After some discussion, the nurse agreed to take an ‘unofficial’ weight, which I sent to my recruiter, who agreed, given the circumstances, to allow me an interview.”
On the day of her interview, Massachusetts got hit with a nor’easter, but she drove through the storm and 18 inches of snow to Western Massachusetts to meet with the recruiter.
“I got there just shy of midnight, I woke the recruiter up I said ‘I told you I would be here and here I am.’ She said, ‘kudos to you because we had two other people who didn’t show.’ She gave me my interview and at midnight I was writing an essay talking about what I wanted to do during my next 20 years in the military.”
A Valued Military Career
Smith’s Army career was expansive with several assignments, and many times she overcame challenges by seeing the opportunity to learn and move forward.
She graduated from the US Army Baylor University Graduate Program in Physical Therapy in 1998 and began her military career in Fort Riley, Kansas. It was considered one of the less desirable assignments but she excelled there, spearheading several rehabilitation programs and getting two promotions during her two years there.
Her second assignment, which she requested and had to wait two years to get, was spent in Korea as deputy director of Army Physical Therapy Services where she went through the hospital’s first Joint Commission Accreditation, HealthCare, Certification (JCAHO) and created many programs.
“I was assistant chief by default, there were only two of us, the director and myself,” she said. “Here I was a brand new captain and when he was on leave, I was in charge of PT services for the entire peninsula.”
Smith also deployed to Northern Iraq from 2008-2009 as the 1st Cavalry Division, 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team’s only physical therapist, responsible for the provision of therapy for 5,000 personnel. This included coordinating the rehabilitation team’s ground and air transportation, creating referral systems, improving care delivery, and focusing on individual patient needs, provider access and staff cross-training.
Her message to other veterans is to take what they learned in the service and apply it to civilian life.
“Every veteran has overcome obstacles. I challenge veterans to ask themselves what skills allowed them to do this. I ask veterans to look at ways they can help others by applying these skills in their jobs and in community activities. I believe we must celebrate successfully meeting challenges but also identify and exploit those skills that drive our success.
“I like problem-solving, thinking outside the box and taking care of my team. I am proud that I can apply these skills that I honed in the Army to my job here at Falmouth Hospital.”
Smith is thankful for every day of her military service and would not trade any of the good or bad days she experienced.
“It all taught me something.”