Member Spotlight: Pinnacle Award of Distinction Recipient

  •   March 4, 2021
  •  Nancy Littke, PT

Physiotherapy Alberta is happy to shine our member spotlight on Heather Bredy, the 2020 Pinnacle Award of Distinction recipient. Heather grew up in Fort Saskatchewan, lives and works in Edmonton, and completed her physiotherapy education at the University of Alberta (U of A). Although she envisioned branching out a little further from home, education and job opportunities have kept her in the Edmonton area for her entire life.

Immediately after high school, Heather enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts in Psychology program at the U of A. She considered a degree in Law, but discovered physiotherapy after her Arts degree and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Physical Therapy in 1998. Several years later, Heather joined the first online cohort in the Master of Clinical Science in Physiotherapy Therapy (Manual Therapy) program through Western University receiving her degree in 2008.

After graduation, Heather joined the team at the Glen Sather Sport Medicine Clinic (GSSMC). Alongside her clinic work, she became the clinical and on-field physiotherapist for several varsity teams including football, basketball, and volleyball. When the opportunity arose, Heather moved into the Rehabilitation Director position at the clinic and continued in this role until 2011. There was a strong connection between the GSSMC and the Department of Physical Therapy, so when a part-time teaching role covering for a professor on leave came up within the department, Heather took the job. Opportunities to work as a teaching assistant with Dr. Magee in the MSK stream during this time provided Heather with more experience working in the academic environment.

In 2011 Heather left the GSSMC and started teaching full-time within the U of A Physical Therapy program MSK stream. From 2011 – 2015 Heather’s roles within the physical therapy department included teaching the foundations course to first year students, working as a teaching assistant (TA) within the MSK assessment class and anatomy labs, supervising in the student clinic, and eventually teaching the manual therapy component of the MSK block. Mentoring clinicians who take on the role of TA within the MSK block is an important part of the job, and one that Heather really enjoys, as the clinician TAs continue to provide valuable real-life perspectives to students within her classes.

Once in the teaching world, she discovered that sharing her experience as a clinician was rewarding and valued by the students in the program. Heather still saw herself primarily as a clinician so becoming involved in the Student Clinic at Corbett Hall was a natural fit. Heather still maintains a small clinical caseload at an Edmonton practice which allows her to stay clinically current and connected within the physiotherapy community.

In 2015 Heather was offered the role of Academic Coordinator of Clinical Education, a position that she currently holds. Heather says that she was initially quite nervous about accepting the position, as it seemed so daunting. However, always up for a challenge, she decided to give it a try and, although it is a lot of hard work, it is something she has come to enjoy.

And busy it is. Unlike teaching positions that may offer times during the year which are less busy, the ACCE role has no opportunity for downtime. Finding 660 student placements every year is never easy. Heather is always either planning for the next clinical placement block, trying to locate and recruit clinicians willing to become supervisors, or dealing with student or supervisor issues during placements.

As Heather still identifies herself as a clinician, she feels very attuned to the clinical environment and understands how big the ask is for physiotherapists to volunteer as clinical supervisors on top of their clinical caseloads. Recruiting and training new supervisors is an ongoing part of the job that takes a lot of time. Heather is extremely appreciative of the efforts Alberta clinicians put forth to educate physiotherapy students.

Another ongoing challenge she faces is dealing with students who feel they are not getting the placements they want or must accept a placement experience they are not excited about. This can lead to difficult conversations, but Heather has learned to frame these discussions more around seeing the opportunity to work with a population the students never considered working with rather than going in with a negative attitude. She finds it extremely rewarding when a student develops a new respect for and/or passion for an area of practice they never thought of.

Heather also reflected on the challenges related to a placement that is not going well. Although these situations do not occur often, dealing with them is an important aspect of her job. A student not performing as well as expected or relationship issues between a student and their clinical instructor (CI) are difficult to manage when they arise. Working with both the student and the CI to develop strategies to make a placement a successful and positive experience for both is very important. Providing training, resources, and mentoring to assist a CI to make the experience valuable and hopefully culminate in satisfactory outcome is an extremely rewarding part of the job. Likewise, when a placement is not successful, helping the student and the CI to see the positives and learn from their experience is very important and equally rewarding for Heather.

The COVID-19 pandemic put added pressures on the physical therapy program. This had direct consequences on Heather’s role when all in-person learning was shut down in March 2020, and 220 upcoming spring placements were put on hold. When placements resumed, the Faculty decided to cancel all the spring first-year placements and to focus efforts on ensuring the students who were to graduate in the fall of 2020 were able to complete their studies on time. Three placements for 110 individuals had to be filled in the late summer and early fall to ensure these senior students met the criteria for graduation in November. This required shifting of academic course work from the fall to early summer, shortening placements from six weeks to five, and Heather recruiting supervisors to cover 330 placements while they were also dealing with the fallout from the pandemic in their own practice. This was a tremendous amount of work to coordinate in a constantly changing situation the likes of which had never been dealt with before.

When we spoke, Heather expressed her heartfelt thanks to Alberta physiotherapists for stepping up and getting this work done. She recognizes the challenges physiotherapists were facing as they were learning to navigate the new clinical environment on the fly and appreciates the willingness of colleagues to offer placements at the same time. Heather, the Faculty members, and the students realize how big the ask was and that they could not have achieved the goal of getting every student ready and able to graduate on time without the unwavering support of physiotherapists across the province. Heather believes the UofA program was the only school in the country that was able to pull this off.

The pandemic has also triggered changes in the content of entry-to-practice training at the U of A and other faculties across the country. The need to incorporate telerehabilitation content within the curriculum became obvious as this model of service delivery was key to providing care to patients and was little understood or utilized by physiotherapists prior to the pandemic. The Physical Therapy department has offered a course to assist practicing clinicians incorporate telerehabilitation within their practice for a few years. This program is now also offered as a student elective within the program itself.

I asked Heather to reflect on how her undergraduate degree in psychology has influenced her practice. She feels that physiotherapists have a greater awareness of the importance of the role that mental health and psychosocial factors play in the recovery and rehabilitation of patients than when she graduated. Heather feels her background in psychology provided her with insight into some of the psychosocial elements of recovery and rehabilitation management and allowed her to be more holistic in her approach to patient care from the start of her career. She feels this awareness also helps guide her conversations when facilitating and negotiating challenging supervisor and student relationships.

Heather’s nominators highlighted her passion for promoting and advocating for physiotherapy students and the profession. When prompted to reflect on why advocacy is so important to her, Heather said she has always been extremely proud of being a physiotherapist. This pride and passion for the profession and what it can offer make it natural and easy for her to advocate and promote physiotherapy with clients, students, and the public at large. This includes encouraging students to see beyond what they might consider normal physiotherapy practice and stretch their boundaries to look at new and different populations where physiotherapists can make a difference. Heather feels great pride when a student discovers something unexpected in a placement and feels this is a very important part of her job.

Heather also discussed what it meant to be nominated by a group of physiotherapists that she has been involved with as a teacher, mentor, and as the coordinator of their clinical placements. She feels honored to be recognized by these individuals for what she does in her ACCE role, her contributions as a clinician and as a supporter of physiotherapy and physiotherapists. These individuals are now colleagues that she has come to know and respect. To have these physiotherapists consider her worthy and deserving of this award means a great deal to her. Heather is very appreciative of all the mentoring and support she has received during her career and is happy she is able to give back to the profession she loves.