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Hockey, physio, and moving to Victoria: Getting to know Thomas Zhou

We met Thomas Zhou over the internet to chat with him about growing up playing hockey, moving to Victoria, and connecting with others through Zoom workouts. 

You’re originally an Edmonton native, right? Tell me about growing up in Edmonton.

It was a great place to grow up. I feel like I grew up in a sort of classic 90s neighbourhood; I have fond childhood and high school memories. Hockey is a religion in Edmonton, and I grew up playing it. 

People will bug me about my love of the Oilers and being from Edmonton, but even now I’ll still defend Alberta [laughs]. I think people sometimes forget about Albertan hospitality; the people are really kind. 

When did you come to Victoria? How has it been living here?

Victoria is great! It has similar nice vibes to Alberta. My wife, my two-year-old daughter, and I have moved here from Vancouver, where I had originally moved to attend school for physiotherapy, but my parents are still in Edmonton. 

Moving here has been a big change in pace; we used to live in Yaletown in Vancouver. We have lots of good friends here; many of our Vancouver friends were originally from Victoria and wanted to move back to raise families. Having them around has helped smooth the transition over.

Arbutus also has such a great community vibe, and that’s helped with the transition too. Sandy Wilson, the owner, really cares about the people she brings into the team; she’s built the clinic from a basement suite — I think? [editor’s note: this is true] — to a beautiful clinic in Oak Bay. Even for me, who’s just been here for a little over a month, you can tell there’s a sense of pride for being part of the team, and it inspires me to do my best at work.

How did you happen to become a physiotherapist?

A lot of my clients have been asking me the same thing! 

I didn’t really dream of being a physio, but I first thought about it as a possible career when I met the team physio for the high-level hockey team I played on in high school. He was kind and seemed to be comfortable; had a good work-life balance. So I thought maybe this would be a good career choice. 

I knew I wanted to be in healthcare; growing up in a “classic Asian family,” [smiles] I naturally thought about being a doctor. But I never felt pressured; my parents supported me in doing whatever I wanted, whatever would make me happy. 

I knew in the first year of university that being a doctor didn’t appeal to me. It didn’t really fit my lifestyle and personality. I did come across physio in university and having been inspired by my own experiences going through physio as a hockey player, I felt inspired to pursue it. 

Becoming a physio has been a natural process, I was luckily able to take time to figure out what I wanted to do. 

What’s your favourite thing about being a physiotherapist?

My favourite thing is seeing people get better. Compared to some contexts, Arbutus is an incredibly positive environment, in the sense that for the most part, patients who come to the clinic get better. That’s something that also attracted me to being a physio.

My other favourite thing is teaching and coaching people how to move in a way that they may have known or never knew. It’s fulfilling; you’ve taught them something so they don’t feel pain in their daily life. 

What would you say is most challenging in your work?

I would say the most challenging thing is helping people manage expectations about recovery. For certain injuries, it’s hard; everyone wants to feel 100% after their treatment, but sometimes it’s not possible. Remaining optimistic and realistic, balancing those two things, is one of the hardest things. 

Another challenge is staying on top of the ever-changing world of physio. New treatments and research are coming out constantly. We all have busy lives, but I think if you want to be a good clinician, you have to stay on top of that stuff. 

Tell us about your balance class that just opened up.

I noticed a lot of patients coming in expressed that they were a little more unsteady on their feet, and a lot of that had to do with community activities cancelled due to COVID. People simply couldn’t be as active during the lockdowns. 

I initially ran a virtual balance program at my old clinic in Vancouver during COVID; I ran a class for seniors so they could get active and build the strength needed to improve their balance. I approached Sandy and proposed offering a similar program, as I thought it would be good for the community. We canvassed our patients to see who was interested, and we’ve filled one class already! A second one might start soon as well. 

What do you like to do to keep moving? 

Cycling is a big part of my life. I’ve been doing it for eight or nine years and got more into it in the past five years. I still play hockey, with men’s leagues out here in Victoria. 

During the early months of COVID, actually, a group of my friends got on a Zoom call to find ways to stay fit. A personal trainer friend ran a fitness session on Zoom for us. It grew over time; we started with four people coming in every day, and by the fall of 2020, we had 200 people on a mailing list. You’d see 30-40 screens on an average workout. It really helped build a community during COVID. It was very much a supportive network; we basically showed up every day, and you felt accountable to everyone else who showed up. 

My wife and I still do those workouts two times a week; we recorded them so we could follow along with them later. It’s become a hobby of ours. Other than that, we like to explore Victoria; we still have a lot to explore. But for now, we’ve been doing little walks around our neighbourhood. 

Tell us about your bike! 

I have two! Currently, I’m using my winter bike; it’s aluminum, and I’m commuting to work on it every day. My summer bike is my baby: it’s from a Swiss company called BMC, and it’s very light and fun to ride. I’m looking to join a cycling club here in Victoria. We’re of course still getting settled, but there are a few I think I’ll be joining in the next month! 

Do you have a favourite body part?

[Laughs] What an interesting question. Can’t go wrong with saying the glutes! A strong bum helps with everything; I always tell my clients that if you have strong hips and legs, it helps everything, especially for back pain. Strong glutes take a load off your back. 

In your bio, you note that your professional languages are English and Mandarin. Can you tell us a little about speaking Mandarin and how that’s been related to your physio practice?

I grew up in a household where we spoke a mix of English and Mandarin; I joked that we spoke “Chinglish” at home. But I was lucky to come out of that being able to speak Mandarin. It’s helped me a lot in recent years in my physio practice, especially when I was working in Vancouver. People feel more comfortable talking in their mother tongue, and that helped me connect with my patients who spoke Mandarin as their first language.

In Victoria, I’ve been using it less, but in the way the world’s changing, with people moving around the globe, it will only be an asset going forward. Victoria is a world-class city that has a vibe of small-town hospitality while still being relatively big. So if I can offer a language option that makes people feel more at home, I’d like to do that.