Jennifer Hankenson, MD, hardly knew what a physiatrist—a doctor with specialty focused on physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R)—was until her husband was hit by a car while she was in medical school.
“He was badly hurt and had to learn to do many of the things he could easily do before the accident, in addition to managing his pain and going back to work,” Dr. Hankenson says. “One doctor put him on a lot of different medications that made him drowsy and not his usual self. Then, we received a recommendation to see a physician who was trained in PM&R. My husband was then able to come off all of his pain medications and get his quality of life back.”
Dr. Hankenson, who had been leaning toward a career in general or plastic surgery, decided to specialize in PM&R herself. She says she enjoys helping patients regain strength and function after strokes, traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, and concussions.
“A physiatrist like myself steps in when someone has a major illness like a stroke or spinal cord injury that requires a hospital stay. Someone may be discharged from the hospital and go to a rehabilitation hospital, and my role is when they are completely discharged—I help them recover and rebuild their lives,” she explains. “It may not look like their life before the incident occurred, but what is most important to me is getting them back to the highest level possible.”
Dr. Hankenson says she focuses on remaining realistic and hopeful with patients. “If a patient loses all hope, that is a huge roadblock to recovery. I think it’s important to explain that a major injury means it will take time, but the body has an amazing ability to heal itself,” she says. “I like to focus on small gains and achievable goals.”