I have an ongoing list of people that I want to interview over time for this blog. Laura Driscoll was on that list even before she reached out to me one day in a heart-felt Facebook comment of mommy-support. I wanted to hear Laura’s expertise on low back pain, and posture…as well as how to balance work and family life. Laura is a spirited mommy of 3 boys, wife to a musician/English teacher (shout-out to you, Cris Driscoll!), a gifted athlete, and a dedicated Physical Therapist. And now add to that, professor. Laura teaches in the Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences Department of Physical Therapy and Athletic Training at Boston University, and still practices at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston. Laura has 2 Boston Marathons under her belt, and an incredibly special story about how she was inspired and asked to run her first Boston Marathon in 2014. She has treated and helped marathon bombing victims and, well, grab a tissue and read it here: Boston Globe Article
I sat down with Laura about a month ago, at a suburban outdoor patio of P.F.Changs. As we sipped cocktails and ate summer rolls and tempura shrimp, she reassured me that everything is going to be ok. New-ish (and sensitive) mommies like me need to hear this on a regular basis, and this hang with her was such a blessing. She has made it through the baby and toddler trenches and offered support and reassurance that my career, as hers did, will go on, that “mommy-brain” is normal and will slowly, but not entirely, subside, and that finding time for exercise and training will happen again eventually. But truly, guys- Laura is one of those people who has this ‘je ne sais quoi’ energy surrounding her. She is a delight. Without further ado…Laura Driscoll.
KC: Tell me about your background in PT and how you became interested in it
LD: My journey into the PT world is fairly similar to many others. It starts with me being an athlete and being exposed to exercise and injury early in my life. I have always been a very science oriented person and was toying with a pre-med track while in high school. I was attracted to the idea of working closely with people throughout their recovery which is a somewhat unique aspect of PT as compared to becoming an MD. The way the system is set up in this country, the doctors don’t spend as much time with people. I thought this would be a great way for me to remain connected to my love of sport. However, when I actually began studying physical therapy, I fell in love with helping people with much more serious injuries and illnesses. My first full time position was at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in the inpatient/acute care service where I rotated through all of the different floors. I chose inpatient as a starting point thinking that I would spend a couple of years learning medicine and then move on to outpatient or rehab. 16 years later, I am still primarily practicing in the hospital, with my niche being critical care in the ICU (people who have sustained major trauma, had a stroke or some other critical illness) and obtained certification as a Geriatric Clinical Specialist; a far cry from working with injured athletes. I love helping people achieve recovery to return to doing really basic things. Sometimes, my whole treatment consists of problem solving how someone will go from their bed to the bathroom. It’s really rewarding and the time I spend with people tends to be intimate and intense. I love my job. I spent a number of years as the team leader at BIDMC, with a handful of other per diem jobs in various settings peppered in, and 2 years ago I accepted a full time faculty position in the physical therapy program at Boston University. I teach a variety of courses but what I bring that is unique to the faculty is the perspective of the impact of aging on the human movement system as well as how to manage patients in critical care scenarios. So, in the end, I get to be the expert on the medical aspect of disease and injury. The beauty of a career in PT is that it is fantastically flexible, which is certainly attractive as a mom.
KC: What is one of the most common ailments that you treat, and what can we do NOW to help prevent it?
LD: Given that a lot of what I encounter is the result of a major trauma (car accident, fall etc.) or of a host of life choices that lead to cardiac disease, I would have to say this is a difficult question to answer directly. What I will say is this: when people encounter situations that require them to be hospitalized, or have surgery, those who are more fit do better. The same is true of healthy aging. The more you move, the faster you will recover. Think of it as having a reserve in your tank. If you start weak, you will be more impacted by whatever it is that happens to you, and ultimately it will take longer to get better. If you start strong, you will be impacted less and recover faster. So, exercise. It’s really the simple answer to a whole lot of things, both mental and physical. Creating a habit of routinely exercising will almost always have a positive outcome.
KC: What are some root causes for lower back pain, and can you give me a tip for how to stretch and/or strengthen it? (P.S. I know this is not a replacement for meeting with a PT…just a tip) :)
LD: Low back pain is such a pervasive issue these days. I subscribe to the theory that we, as humans, were never intended to function in the singular plane that we do. All this sitting and walking in a straight line and standing still. We were meant to be moving and squatting and turning. The result of this progression of technology and culture that limits movement is a giant epidemic of low back pain. The cause (barring of course a car crash or something of that nature) is weakness. Core weakness can be found in most people and definitely in most moms! The problem is further compounded by the crazy trend that medicine took in the past 30 or so years that people need to rest when they are injured. Acutely, yes. A couple days of rest might be necessary, but chronic back pain is only compounded by rest because further weakness occurs. I think focusing on posture and increasing activities that allow you to do that is the answer. I am a big fan of yoga. In fact, I often incorporate aspects of yoga and positioning (including breathing to achieve the right posture) into my treatment with people who are very, very hurt or those with advanced age. It’s never too late to start paying attention to your posture. There is no quick fix, you need to move and move in the right way. Bad habits develop quickly and are hard to overcome because your body has an amazing ability to adapt. Adaptation to the right posture only happens with consistent strengthening of the small muscle groups (not crazy weight lifting work out trends of today…which can be dangerous if you don’t have a baseline of decent core stability).
KC: Singers rely on good posture and alignment for proper breathing coordination. Can you tell me about the importance of strengthening the “posture muscles”?
LD: Ahhhh, yes. You led me right to this question! Your breath and posture are intimately connected. Good control of breathing happens only when the range of motion exists. This is true for singers but also for someone with deconditioning and pulmonary issues. I use breathing all of the time to help people learn to facilitate good movement. Conversely, movement can be used to facilitate ease of breathing. So, if you are tight or weak in your back, neck or even in your hips, your ability to create a large range of motion for your breath will be limited, thereby limiting your ability to control your voice.
KC: Time to talk about your munchkins. (Feel free to gush here) How many children do you have and how old are they?
LD: I have three children. My oldest is about to turn nine, and I have twins who are about to turn six. It has been a wild ride. They are all boys and each of them is extremely different in personality from the other, despite the fact that they look like clones. I am a total boys mama and honestly do not know what I would do with a girl. They are all funny, smart, handsome and incredibly creative in very unique ways. They also have very strong opinions about Star Wars which result in lengthy debates.
KC: When did you first fall in love with running, and how has that changed after having kids? How long did it take after having children to pound the pavement again? Any new injuries or differences in your overall strength and/or endurance when you started running again postpartum?
LD: I fell in love with running after my athletic career ended. I was going to play in college but the rigor of the PT program really didn’t leave much room for playing a division 1 sport. I needed to find something that allowed me the same release emotionally as playing a sport did. I needed goals but I needed the flexibility to do something on my own time. I was really concerned becoming pregnant the first time that I would lose my athletic identity. So much so that I really think it impacted my first pregnancy. I was constantly worried about how I would bounce back and if ever. Honestly, I had an easier time carrying the twins (who were a combined weight of nearly 14 pounds…) because my mindset was so much better. I signed up for my first triathlon in June after my oldest was born (September) but I don’t think I started training until after the winter. I tried to be one of those people who run through their pregnancies but my body was not having it. I would either vomit or be so exhausted it wasn’t worth it. So, I walked instead. After the twins were born (also September), I signed up for a triathlon in early May, the season opener. My only regret with that one is that the water was COLD. Training or just running while having children is really hard. Aside from the physical stuff, there’s the mom guilt. I should be with my kids rather than running for an hour+. I avoided it for a bit, but after some long talks with my incredibly supportive husband, I realized that when I didn’t run, I was a miserable human to be around. I needed that time for me. I’ll tell you that I tried a few times to run with the baby, and power to the people that do that, but I just couldn’t get to that place that I needed to clear my head. My focus was on the child and not on running. Then there’s the issue of time. When do you fit it in? It’s really hard. I found a unique solution to make it work for us and actually save time in the long run. I’m lucky that I live and work in the city. So, I would take public transportation to work and run home at the end of the day. Commuting on foot, getting my exercise in and arriving home a happier mama. Running postpartum is certainly different than running before having babies. I never had to think about my core before. Now, if I’m not careful, I fall into a poor posture and end up with low back pain, quad tightness and IT band pain pretty quickly. My solution for this? Yoga. If I’m training consistently, the only way I stay in healthy running form is to consistently do yoga. I sound like an infomercial, but there’s got to be something behind a practice that’s been around for that many years, right?
KC: Tell me about your races! The marathons and the crazier ones! What do these do for you physically and mentally/emotionally/spiritually?
LD: I try to sign up for 2-3 big endurance races a year. The real reason is that if I don’t, I’ll slack off and won’t run as much, which inevitably leads to me being a grumpy mother with far less patience for the frat house in which I live. I fell in love with triathlons because they presented a new challenge that allowed me to use a lot of skills, and not just running. Burnout is real and I don’t want to feel like exercise is a chore. That sounds ridiculous, but for me doing many different things leaves it feeling new. Plus, cross-training keeps you healthier than just running all the time. Every September I run a relay race called “Reach the Beach” in New Hampshire with a team of 12 runners. It’s a 200+ mile race starting at the top of Canon mountain and ending on Hampton beach that is run by one runner at a time, split into 36 legs (each runner runs 3 legs, in order, totaling anywhere from 15-22 miles). The other runners support from a van that follows along. It’s totally insane (the middle of the night run is done with a headlamp) and takes our team about 26 hours to complete. No sleep, keep running, get in a van, move on, lather, rinse, repeat. It sounds hellish, because it is, but it’s some of the most fun/team bonding experience I have ever had. Each year I dread it, feeling like I’m not trained enough, and each year I come home saying it was the best weekend ever. I had never run a marathon before 2014 and honestly didn’t ever intend to. Marathon training is a whole other beast. It’s a serious time commitment not to mention how hard it is. But, my job is what brought me to this race. I was very closely involved with a lot of people who were injured during the bombing in 2013. Each of the survivors was given bib numbers for 2014, and my patient asked me to run for her. You can’t exactly say no to that, can you? That story could take me another hour to fully tell, but the short version is that it was an out of body experience. Fearing that I had only achieved success in that race because of the circumstances (read: chronic overachiever who constantly thinks success is fluke), I ran it again in 2016. Let’s just say, I might be hooked.
KC: Any last bits of advice for new-ish moms like me, trying to get back in good shape all around (physical, mental, etc?) P.S. We hired your cleaning people, by the way! :)
LD: Yoga!!! I’m kidding (but not totally…). I think people need to think about what they did before having kids and try not to put a crazy amount of expectations on themselves now that they do have kids. Being a parent is hard enough. You don’t need to slather on the pressure of thinking you will now all of a sudden become a fitness guru. Do what works for you and what makes you happy. I am a big fan of those fancy step counters (e.g. Fitbit or iPhone apps etc). Counting steps is a real way to be accountable to yourself about your activity level throughout the day. You don’t have to be a triathlete to move more. And if you can afford it, hire someone to clean your house. That is my best present to myself. I would rather starve than give up my house cleaner. That time is too precious.