It is a cold and grey early January day in 2021. As I reflect on moving into our 32nd year of taking care of the people of the Michiana area, I feel remarkably proud and still overwhelmed. I had been overwhelmed with the thought of beginning a new physical therapy practice, when moving my wife and 2 young children from the Chicago suburbs. I had a very busy, but unbalanced life (working too much) in the Chicago suburbs. I had hoped to work towards a less stressful lifestyle in a smaller, more family-oriented area.
Like anyone who moves to a new area, whether to attend school, work in a new job, start a new family, etc., I was scared and unaware of all the skills and knowledge I would need. I had little knowledge of starting a brand-new physical therapy business. The banks had a number of expectations I needed to meet in order to give me a loan. I actually failed to get a loan at four banks. After getting rejected four times, correcting my proposals each time and getting 3 physician letters stating they would send me some patients, I got my loan and began on January 12, 1989.
I saw one patient that day and our office was still under construction. The construction guys left during my one patient’s first examination and treatment visit. Everyone paid cash, since I had no idea how to bill insurance, and my fee was a flat fee. I still have, in my desk drawer, a check from one of my first patients. The beginnings of any new endeavor are exciting, scary and memorable. I still cherish those moments and remember most of those first patients. Life seemed a bit simpler and a lot less challenging and complicated than I could have ever realized.
One of the main things, I naively knew, was that I needed to get a number of physicians to refer a patient or two to me and hope to help them heal in a way the patient never thought possible. That way, this patient would go back to their physicians, friends and family and get the word out. I needed word of mouth from each successful patient to get the physician to begin to send patients my way, instead of just using their normal referral patterns. This change occurred faster than I could have imagined, and as a result, our first year brought two very special members onto our team. Both had major impacts on the success and culture of McDonald Physical Therapy.
I began my small practice of 815 sq. ft. in the basement of the Panzica’s building on Monroe Street downtown. What began as a one man show; examining, treating, educating and asking for payment (I had no clue how to bill) slowly grew into a 3-person clinic within the first year. During that first year, I was able to hire Sandy, who brought me into the 20th century by billing for our patients and running the entire schedule with what seemed to be little effort on her part. She was key to our success for a long time. She was with us for 25 years.
The next key person that first year was Barb. She was a mom of 2 young children who wanted part-time work. She helped take pressure off me. At that time, I was working 13-hour days. She was the reason I was able to take a vacation the next year. She was an exceptional person and caregiver as well. Unfortunately, after many years of being a major part of our team, she had a severe stroke. She is no longer able to work, but still has an amazing smile, positive attitude and a way that makes anyone around her feel cared about. We still speak about her in our team meetings. Her care was also as good as it gets. Everyone loved being treated by Barb.
Each year brought many challenges and also, many great people onto our team. We have been challenged time and again by our competitors. Most of our competitors are owned by the hospitals, physician groups and/or larger corporate firms. Many independent healthcare providers are getting bought out because the challenges of surviving seem too great right now. So far, we are the longest lasting, independent physical therapy provider in South Bend, still standing at 31 years. This year, when Covid-19 hit us and we had to furlough 21 team members, we had to revisit that initial fear of surviving. The question, “Can an independent practice (a Ma and Pa clinic) still make it in our world?” returned to my mind. So many of my friends who had owned physical therapy clinics around the country, as well as businesses in our own community have closed. This is a scary and devastating fact.
As in the past, we still believe there is a place for the independent private physical therapy practice. There aren’t many left, but we believe we are necessary. I actually hope and pray that the pendulum will swing back to having more independent practitioners as there were many years ago. I’m sure many people remember times when they did not have to navigate complicated voicemail systems only to be put on hold for minutes on end, listening to automated commercials of how important they are. I am sure most of us would prefer our phone calls answered by a person who could take our call, listen empathetically, and help us with our concerns immediately.
As we all continue to struggle through this Covid-19 scare, I am wishing every one of you the best. I am wishing you better health than before and better care from us all in the future. Please remember, if you need to be heard and want the kind of care you may have thought was no longer attainable, we at McDonald Physical Therapy, are here for you and your family.
Stay humble, work hard, be kind
Fran McDonald, PT,DPT,OCS