February 20, 2015
Physical therapist brings songs and dance to cancer patients
BY Carol Bryce
Growing up in Jefferson, Texas, Jasia Russell, didn't know anything about physical therapy.
That changed when Russell was 16 and her beloved grandfather suffered an abdominal aneurysm.
"He'd been a farmer and a rancher -- a very active man," she recalls. "Then he had to have both legs amputated above the knees. I thought he'd be bedridden for the rest of his life."
But thanks to physical therapy, Russell's grandfather regained his independence.
"He'd go from riding his power chair or golf cart to mowing the lawn on his four-wheeler. He lived another eight years and had very good quality of life," she says.
When she saw the impact physical therapy can have on a patient, she decided to become a physical therapist.
Preparing for a career at MD Anderson
After earning a bachelor of science in Kinesiology at the University of North Texas in Denton and spending "three years of blizzards" completing a doctorate in physical therapy near Chicago, Russell returned to Texas. She was finishing her final physical therapy rotation at another Houston hospital when something caught her eye.
"I was driving around the medical center and noticed MD Anderson's buildings," she recalls.
"And I thought, 'What an incredible place that would be to work.'"
That dream became reality in August 2013, when Russell joined our Rehabilitation Services department.
Helping our cancer patients
She's found that people sometimes are surprised to see physical therapists at a cancer center. But Russell and her colleagues play crucial roles in helping patients manage issues related to cancer and its treatment.
"I like to say we're engineers of the body. We do many different things to help improve patients' quality of life," she says.
For example, Russell helps patients manage side effects like lymphedema and fatigue. And she's especially interested in pelvic floor rehabilitation.
"Radiation can cause tightness in the pelvic muscles that can lead to problems like incontinence, pain and sexual dysfunction in both men and women," she explains.
"I learned about this when I worked with an amazing pelvic floor therapist in school. It's not everyone's forte, but I'm fascinated by it."
When Russell interviewed here, she asked about our pelvic floor therapy program. When she found out we didn't have one, she decided to start a program herself. Right now it has a staff of just two: Russell and a physical therapist at our Katy location. But she wants to complete her own training in this field and continue to build our program.
Transformed by a wig
Russell, who grew up doing theater, recently decided she had another goal: to get back on the stage.
After investigating upcoming community theater productions, she auditioned for the play "Grease."
Russell was thrilled to get the part as Rizzo. Then came the challenge of going from physical therapist by day to tough, sarcastic Rizzo at night.
"I'd done lots of musicals, but I'd never played a part like this. The closest thing was when I was a girl in a can-can line in high school," she says.
But Russell and her castmates soon made an interesting discovery.
"We decided that when I put on the black wig, I turned into Rizzo," she laughs.
Russell spent an exhausting month working here every day, picking up her 11-year-old daughter, Chloe, from school, and then driving to the theater for rehearsals and productions.
But she loved the experience and hopes to audition for another play in the future.
For now, Russell's happy to share her joy of performing at work.
"I love to sing and dance with my patients, and I'll round up some of my co-workers, too," she says. "Our patients ring a bell when they complete treatment, just like they do in Radiation. So we have a big celebration."
A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson's bimonthly employee publication.
TopicsTreatment Physical Therapy
I love to sing and dance with my patients.