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Why did you leave the Army?

As one of the UK’s leading London physiotherapists, I regularly write about injuries, treatment and assessment techniques.

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“Nell, why did you leave the Army?” – it’s a question I get asked a lot, especially when I’m talking enthusiastically about my 10 years as an Army physio – because I did love it. The Army was a fantastic training ground for a young physio, and I would thoroughly recommend it. But if I loved it so much, why did I leave?

There were many really fantastic aspects of being an Army physio.  I got to work with patients who (on the whole!) really wanted to get better, and so did their homework exercises.  That meant I could tell quickly what was working and what wasn’t, which is the best form of feedback. I was – especially in the early days – surrounded by experienced and helpful senior physios, remedial instructors and (in the pre-SEM days) consultants in rheumatology and rehabilitation at Headley Court, who were happy to share their years of wisdom with a very wide-eyed junior physio. I was pushed out of my comfort zone, and had to paddle frantically to make sure I was good enough to work solo with the Army rugby academy teams and to go to Norway with the Royal Marines.

I saw patients with a wide range of injuries, from sprained ankles and shin splints to blast injuries and traumatic amputations. I was allowed day release and funding to do a postgraduate diploma in sports & exercise medicine at QMUL. I worked in hospitals, in outpatient departments, in intensive residential rehabilitation units, on the pitch and in the field (and in Cyprus, where I became the physio for their Davis Cup tennis team, on the court too!) And I learned and learned, and I loved it.

But I knew it was time to leave after my final tour in Cyprus, where I was OC Physio, the most senior military physio on the island. Again, I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, in part because I didn’t have anyone looking over my shoulder too closely.  The head of the Army physiotherapy cadre was 3000 miles away, and my Commanding Officer let me get on with running my department in the way I wanted to.  I was largely able to distribute my time as I wanted, which meant in my case doing about 80% clinical and 20% admin (and not wanting to short-change my patients, I did most of my admin out of hours, because I’ve never been very good at work-life balance). And I was lucky enough to have some good people on my team and in the hospital hierarchy who were prepared to work with me to try my schemes (like setting up a residential rehab service on the island, bringing in a visiting podiatrist, setting up pre-natal pilates classes…)

I knew that when I – inevitably – returned to the UK after my two years in Cyprus, that it would be to a much more administrative role: writing policy and plans. At that stage, that was simply how the Army physiotherapy career path went: a few years of clinical work, followed by running a department and then becoming a desk officer. I was able to turn my Cyprus posting into probably the most clinical Major’s role in the Army, but back in the UK with more oversight from HQ, I knew that couldn’t happen.

I found that super frustrating, because my goal has always been to be the best physio I can be; and I knew I hadn’t reached that point.  I knew I’d also be frustrated because I knew there would be patients who needed what I had to offer, and if I were in an admin role, I wouldn’t be able to help them to the best of my ability.

I love being able to make a direct difference to my patients’ quality of life, to see them skipping out full of hope and understanding, after they’ve come in despairing. I love helping them along the journey from being injured and miserable, to enjoying being in their body again. And I love the challenge of working out how best to help patients with serious and complex problems. That’s what I’m good at, and it’s what makes me wake up every morning excited for the day ahead. I didn’t want to stop.

So… I left. I was ready to move on, and because of that, I don’t miss the Army (though I do miss having a regular paycheque, and I miss some of the people). Luckily, Facebook is a wonderful invention so I keep up with my friends; and I used to be a regular fixture at the Army v Navy rugby match (although my nephew’s birthday now often coincides with it, and these days, being Auntie Nell is even more fun than going to Twickenham!)

After leaving the Army, I set up Victory, where I had an amazing team of civilian therapists to collaborate with, and I’m super proud of the work we did to help our patients get better.

Although I closed Victory in 2019, I learned a lot. Because I now have more autonomy over my time, I do 90 minute assessments, and 60 minute treatment sessions – rather than the standard military or NHS (or indeed, most private practices) 20-30 minutes.  I can geek out and go on courses that the Army probably would never have allowed me to do (such as learning about Diane Lee’s Integrated Systems Model; and training in Visceral Manipulation with Jean-Pierre Barral, and Craniosacral Therapy with the Upledger Institute).

In short, I and my patients have changed, and my practice has progressed.  I see more postsurgical patients now, and fewer with blast trauma; more desk-based workers and fewer orienteers; but I’m still always learning, I still love wrestling with the daily puzzles that are my lovely patients, and making a difference to their lives – and so I still wake up looking forward to going to work.

If I sound like the sort of geeky, enthusiastic, whole-body-oriented, challenge-obsessed physio that you need, why not call my team on 0207 175 0150 and book a 90-minute physio assessment, and see how I can best help you?

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Many people assume that a stiff or sore neck is an inevitable part of aging. 

I’m here to show you that doesn’t have to be the case!