On September 10, 2013, Karen Davis Warren was given the opportunity to welcome and inspire the Emory University DPT Class as the keynote speaker for their white coat ceremony. We wanted to share the content of her inspirational talk about seeking change, adjusting to change, creating change, and being the change.

Karen Davis Warren Give Speech at Emory University White Coat Ceremony
Karen Davis Warren Gives Speech at Emory University White Coat Ceremony

Thank you to the Emory faculty—you are my role models and each of you continues to inspire me as you nurture and grow this program.

For all of you getting ready to begin this program, you will soon realize just what a special place this is.  Once the novelty of the new labs and fancy buildings wears off, you’ll recognize that it’s the PEOPLE who make this program so tremendous.

Thank you for inviting me to my first white coat ceremony.

In preparation for this speech, I did a lot of reflection. I looked back at my life and tried to figure out what motivated and inspired me. And what could I say to possibly inspire you for the next 3 years—or perhaps the next 30?

It occurred to me that toward inspiration are carved out by how we handle change.

At different points in our lives, we can seek change, adjust to change, create change …. and BE the change. I want to share a few stories that illustrated those lessons for me.

I grew up in Cape Cod in the 1970’s with a divorced mom raising four kids on a nurse’s salary. We were the family that had discounted lunch tickets and hand-me-down clothes.  Fortunately for me, Cape Cod was a huge tourist attraction, so jobs were easy to come by.  I started working as a chambermaid—that’s a fancy term for someone who cleans motel rooms, by the way.  Scrubbing toilets and changing sheets, I knew someday, if I worked hard enough I would be able to afford to stay in one of those rooms.

By age 14, I had moved on to restaurants—washing dishes and prepping salads.  Pretty soon, I was promoted to cooking on the line, and when I was finally old enough, I got out of the kitchen and started waiting tables.  There in the dining room, sitting at the tables, were all the people I had been cooking for.  Someday, I thought, I’ll be able to afford to be cooked for AND waited on with my family.  I loved working hard and saving money but I wanted more from life than an apron full of tourist’s tips.  Forget the loose change; it was time to SEEK CHANGE.

And I did.

I made it my goal to be the first in my family to go to college.  I filled out the applications myself and got accepted to the University of Southern California.  I didn’t think twice about traveling more than 3000 miles from home, not knowing a sole.

Karen Davis Warren Give Speech at Emory University White Coat Ceremony Karen Davis Warren Give Speech at Emory University White Coat Ceremony

I had grown up watching my mother care for people as a nurse and knew that medicine was a really great field.  I was attracted to helping others and fascinated with health and wellness.  It made sense to begin a pre-med track at USC.  At this point I didn’t realize that my father’s self made business, that I had gotten glimpses of with visits on weekends as a child, would later cultivate the entrepreneur in me.

College life was a bit overwhelming in the big city of Los Angeles and it wasn’t long before the rigors of organic chemistry were weighing heavily on my shoulders. The more I immersed myself in pre-med, the less motivation and drive I had.  I started questioning my career path.

Coincidentally, I landed a work-study job in the student health center, in the physical therapy department.  I saw doctors meeting with patients for two minutes, while we had them in physical therapy for an hour.  Then, the “a-ha” moment for me:  We were the ones getting them better! I needed to make a decision and an adjustment in my track.  ADJUST TO CHANGE.

And I did.

I switched to pre-PT and never looked back.    Once again, I was motivated, inspired and felt a new sense of being driven.  From that point on, I spent every extra minute I had in any PT clinic that would take me, before or after my paid job and in between classes.  That drive, combined with passion for my work is what helped me get accepted and successfully complete the esteemed program here at Emory.

Remember when I said that it’s the PEOPLE in the program that matter?  My mentors in this program have inspired change.  I wanted to surround myself with people who I knew could change my life for the better.

And I did.

The late Scott Irwin, whom many of our faculty knew, admired and loved, was really the reason I stayed in Atlanta after graduating.  His passion for the field was unsurpassed. Being regularly encouraged by him and his colleagues put me on a path that helped fuel my fledgling entrepreneurial spirit.

And thanks to Dr. Bruce Greenfield, I landed my first outpatient position.  Dr. Greenfield became faculty here at Emory and his position at an outpatient clinic was vacant, and I filled it  (By default, I also acquired some of his old books that he left on his desk which I have read cover to cover!).  However this was in the era of the HMO, and for three years, I heard management tell me that insurance reimbursements determine how long I could see a patient.

I spent the next 6 years learning everything I could about the business of running an outpatient practice.  I escaped to the high school football sidelines every Friday night to volunteer for game coverage, spent many hours at the schools, volunteering.  Gaining what I know now was great sports medicine experience.  Those many hours qualified me to help participate on the medical team for the 1996 Olympic Games, work at the Olympic Training Center and travel to Asia for international competition with the USA Short Track Speed Skating Team.  Yes, Apollo Ohno was on the team then, before he won Dancing With The Stars.

But there was that drain again….on my passion, my motivation. Change was coming and this time, I was ready to CREATE IT.

And I did.

I created my dream job at the time— and began traveling internationally, treating and working with some of the best female tennis athletes in the world on the WTA Tour.  It was all put in motion after I took a continuing education course and met my future boss there. She sensed (and shared) my passion, my knowledge and my desire to be the best.

She knew I was ready to become a Primary Healthcare Provider for the Women’s Tennis Tour.   I covered 19 events worldwide, including 4 Grand Slams.

But the glamour of the Tour faded faster than Anna Kournikova’s pro-tennis career.  Change was in the air again— in fact, this time I could I could hear it loud and clear.  It was ticking loudly!  I wanted a family—and a lifestyle that would allow me to have time for a family.  That’s the beauty of CREATING CHANGE – you engineer it for your needs.

I was ready to start a family and put down some real roots in Atlanta.  I had enough work experience to build my own practice.  People ask me what my business model was. I didn’t search for it—it found me, and it was simple:  One by one, one patient at a time.  As my patients got better, I got better.

So, I rented a little room inside a chiropractor’s office, armed with a cell phone and a laptop.  I saw one patient at a time.  I didn’t have enough patients at first to pay the bills, so I was juggling filling in at other PT centers throughout the day and then racing back to the other side of town to build up my business.

I knew from the lessons I’d learned from my mentors that I needed to surround myself with other like-minded colleagues.  People who had strengths that could fill in the gaps where I might be lacking… People who could help me build a business with the goal of not only delivering the best care possible, but to ensure that our patients would get one on one care. As an out-of-network provider our patients receive more quality time per visit with their PT.  This is how my practice, “One on One Physical Therapy” was born.

Creating that kind of change takes sacrifice.  A lot of it.  When no one would rent us a space initially, because we hadn’t been in business long enough, I found investors to help me buy the building.  The mortgage was five times what my house note was! I was more than a little freaked out.  But failure was not an option, period.  I had to figure it out.

And I did.

My colleagues and I knew early on that we could get our patients well, but the key to longevity was keeping them well.  So, we developed a program for our patients to embrace a wellness lifestyle, with Pilates, massage therapy, nutritional counseling and personal training.  As our “concierge” style of practice grew, so did the need for an in-network alternative.

The healthcare environment was changing.  There was a gap in patient need and affordable care. In response, we didn’t just create the change.  WE BECAME THE CHANGE.

We founded Back 2 Motion PT in 2011 as that solution.  It was opportunities to not only develop our business, but to provide an affordable alternative for patients without sacrificing quality of care.

9 years after I started my practice in that little room, we have 11 full-time PT’s on staff, and support staff and contractors that fill another 20 positions, and a tremendous opportunity to touch a lot of lives.  My practice is living proof of the impact of quality PT—and how it enhances those that give it   as well as receive it.  That’s the thing that you will soon realize.  You will gain as much from each patient visit, as your patient.

The beauty of this line of work is that there are always challenges that remind us why we wanted to be PT’s.  Last week, I treated a patient who has Down’s syndrome.  He wouldn’t let me touch him and he couldn’t communicate where his pain was. I could use the magic in my hands that I have developed over the last 20 years.  Once again, I found myself with the challenge of change.  Changing my method to suit this patient’s needs.

And I did.

It’s what makes me want to go to work.  Every. Single. Day.

Whatever journey you take on this rich career path, remember to balance your professional ambitions with your personal needs.  I can leave work at work and know when I come home; my priority is my wonderful husband and my 2 beautiful girls.

You all have already taken that first, magnificent step toward changing lives— your own, and those of your future patients by beginning this program.

Keep change in your sights— and a little in your pocket.  You’ll need it for those late nights in the lab.