Physical therapy grad beginning a new career after 21 years in Canadian Armed Forces

Catherine McLellan finds satisfaction in helping enable people to do everyday things that have huge emotional importance.

Jon Pullin - 08 June 2023

Catherine McLellan was an aerospace engineering officer in the Canadian Armed Forces for 21 years, having joined the military right after high school.

After the birth of her first child, and with the challenges of trying to balance career and family, she began looking for a career change that would be more supportive of family life.

She consulted with career advisors who matched her with physical therapy, a profession she had never considered. She had always had an interest in the human body, and through her consultation learned she was suited to professions where long-term relationships could be formed.

“That, combined with my fascination to figure out why things worked the way they did, made me a great match with physio,” says McLellan.  

She also remembered back in her childhood how the knee injury her grandfather had suffered during the Second World War had made him struggle to get out of deep chairs and couches.  But after regular appointments with a physical therapist, he had been able to get himself up without any assistance at all, giving him much more independence.  

“I remember being so amazed at what was possible even though I was only around 11 years old at the time. When my career testing showed physiotherapy might be a good fit, I was excited about the idea of helping people the way my grandfather was helped,” says McLellan.  

Wanting to go back to school but also looking to minimize the disruption to her family, she began searching for programs that could work with military postings. The process took a while and had to be adjusted a couple of times with the arrival of her second child and a posting overseas to Belgium requiring that prerequisite courses be available remotely.

“Many graduates and physiotherapists recommended the University of Alberta as having a highly respected program that offered nearly all of the prerequisite courses I needed through distance education.”  

As she worked through prerequisites, she realized how much she enjoyed the problem-solving that goes into helping someone recover from an injury and how much of a difference physiotherapists can make to someone’s quality of life.  

After transferring to the military base in Edmonton to be closer to the U of A, she applied and was accepted to the master's of science in physical therapy (MScPT) program.

“From Day 1, the instructors were so passionate, not just as physiotherapists, but also about teaching. They genuinely cared about the students and really did want us to succeed,” says McLellan.

“We started during the pandemic and couldn’t get together as students for most of the program, so that was tough. The faculty really went out of their way to give us opportunities to connect and reach out for help if we needed it.”

The program included five six-week clinical placements.

“The spinal-cord unit at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital was especially memorable. Even though I was only partway through my coursework, the staff on the unit were very supportive and encouraged me to be independent whenever possible. In only a few short weeks, I found that I had a lot to offer patients and I even took the lead on several. It was so exciting to see how much the patients progressed during our time together,” says McLellan.

In another placement, she worked in a long-term care home. “With one resident we were able to improve her mobility so she could get in and out of a car, allowing her to visit family over the holidays,” says McLellan. “It was a small goal, but so meaningful. Physical therapy is often about simply enabling people to do everyday things that have huge emotional importance.”

Having both left the military, McLellan and her husband have settled with their children in the small mountain town of Fernie, B.C.  “At this stage, I’m looking forward to spending some quality time with my kids, being active in the outdoors and setting down roots and the foundations of what hopefully will be long-term friendships.”  

McLellan now practises with a mobile physio practice that offers in-home services across the Elk Valley (PhysioFITT). She also works at the main clinic in town (Fernie Physiotherapy), where she uses her skills as a parent to fill a need for pediatric care in their rural area. 

“I’m hoping down the road, I can leverage some of my leadership experience to take on students and help give them the confidence and positive experience that I was given by so many of my clinical instructors,” says McLellan.

“The physical therapy program at the U of A is a lot of hard work smashed into a very intense schedule. You really need an intrinsic desire to become a physical therapist because if your heart isn’t in it, it will be difficult to be successful. As a parent of young children and doing the program during the pandemic, it was definitely one of the hardest things I have ever done  — even with a 21-year military career,” says McLellan.

“At the same time, now that I am working in a career I love, in a town that has everything we could ask for, I can’t imagine not having done the program. I am in the fortunate position of being able to do for a living something that I am truly passionate about and that makes all the hours spent studying totally worth it. If you want a profession where you can really help improve people’s lives, physiotherapy may be for you!”

The master's of science in physical therapy (MScPT) program at the University of Alberta is one of the largest in Canada, with approximately 110 students admitted per year.

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