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Former Physical Therapist Now Advocates for the Brain Tumor Community

Published on October 25, 2022 in Survivor, Meningioma, Stories

A man sits in his scooter, crutches hanging off the back, in front of a University of Michigan stormtrooper.

After spending a month in the hospital following his craniotomy, Dr. Eric Galvez transitioned to outpatient speech, occupational, and physical therapy at a rehabilitation center — the same one he worked at before his brain tumor diagnosis.

A former physical therapist receives PT treatment from colleagues.
Former colleagues assist Eric during physical therapy

“In a strange twist, the people I used to work with and go to lunch or happy hours with were now working with me as a patient,” Eric shared. “The biggest difference was that after a long day of ‘work,’ I couldn’t go home and unwind. Now, I had to live with my impairments 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Eric was sent home from the hospital in a wheelchair. With the help of physical therapy, Eric progressed to using a walker and, eventually, crutches. 

“It was a lot to take in, especially for someone like me with a background in rehabilitation,” Eric said. “It was frustrating because you know what you’re supposed to do to progress, yet you can’t. It was very eye-opening.”

Physical therapy plays a vital role in helping patients with a brain tumor regain balance, mobility, and strength.

“Coordination and balance was a huge issue early on for me,” Eric explained. “They had me do a lot of balance and coordination exercises, like throwing a ball and catching it. This is recovery from brain surgery — not a total knee or hip surgery — so you’re going to have to relearn a lot of things.”

Life Changes in California

Eric received his Doctor of Physical Therapy from the University of Michigan-Flint two years before his craniotomy. Upon graduation, Eric moved to San Diego, Calif., where he indulged in all the recreational activities that the area has to offer. He learned how to swim, surfed, and competed in two spring triathlons and a half marathon in 2005. 

“I went to San Diego on a whim,” Eric shared. “I fell in love with the place.  The beach was right there, and there were so many outdoor activities.”

At the time, Eric worked in an outpatient orthopedics PT clinic, supporting patients undergoing knee and hip replacements and other orthopedic treatments. It was then that Eric started experiencing uncomfortable symptoms that he kept dismissing.

An MRI shows a brain tumor the size of a golf ball.

“I was having headaches, dizziness, and nausea,” Eric said. “And what does that sound like? It sounds like a hangover. At first, I thought I was just going at it too hard with everything. But I also surfed a lot, so an ear infection could also explain away my symptoms. I kept brushing it off until I started getting facial numbness. That’s when I realized I better get this checked out.”

His medical team uncovered a brain tumor the size of a golf ball between his brainstem and cerebellum. He later learned it was a meningioma

“Quite honestly, the diagnosis scared the living daylights out of me as a health care professional because the brainstem is very important, as it controls a lot of your unconscious body functions, like your heart rate and respiratory rate,” Eric explained. “Plus, this is your brain, so who knew how I would be after surgery?”

Eric Seeks Solace by Blogging

A man wears a radiation mask over his head to keep his head in place for treatment.
Eric undergoing radiation treatment after his operation

While therapy helped Eric improve physically following his operation, it was blogging about his experience that helped Eric emotionally process his new reality. 

“I wasn’t a very talkative guy before my diagnosis,” Eric said. “Putting all my thoughts in a blog helped me sort through my emotions. Blogging was a very big part of my recovery.”

He later took excerpts from his blog and collected essays from his family and friends about their perspective of his brain tumor experience to write his first of two books, titled “Reversal: When a Therapist Becomes a Patient.” 

Sharing his experience through his blog and books helped Eric find a new passion — advocating for brain tumor survivors using his unique background as a physical therapist and patient.

Focus on Survivor Advocacy

Seventeen years after his diagnosis, Eric continues to undergo physical therapy with the goal of transitioning to a single crutch. He also hopes to obtain his driver’s license soon.

Eric currently serves as membership chair of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) Oncology in their Balance and Falls Special Interest Group (SIG) and as the APTA liaison for APTA Michigan Oncology Rehabilitation SIG. These opportunities allow Eric to share his unique insights as a rehab professional, nonprofit professional, and patient with a brain tumor with severe physical impairments.

Returning to the world of physical medicine and rehabilitation with the perspective of a brain tumor survivor with severe balance and coordination impairments will add unique insight to the activities and goals of the APTA Oncology Balance and Falls SIG. Falls in the survivor population are typically overlooked in lieu of more pressing oncology/medical issues. However, falls can be devastating to oncology patients with unexpected emergency room visits, fractures, or even debilitating hospital admissions. Physical therapists are the most qualified health care professionals to address falls in the oncology population.

Attribution: Dr. Eric Galvez

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