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Emily Jackson on backcountry camping, perspective shifts, and being active at any age

It was our pleasure to interview Emily Jackson and chat about how she got into physiotherapy, why she thinks hiking battles are fun, and why Stephen King writes the best books.

What was it like moving from the Cowichan Valley to Victoria?

Cowichan has a very small-town feel. I was really excited to go to UVIC and even though it’s only 45 minutes away, I still had to map my way there! I remember being at UVIC and still not knowing how to get around. Taking the city bus was new and exciting!

Now you have a truck! Tell us about that.

Driving with it in Vancouver was a nightmare (but I guess it’s not ideal for any driving [laughs]) I’m very happy to be back here. I think it surprises people, when people see me getting into the truck they wonder what’s going on!

When you’re not working, you love to camp. What’s your favourite place to camp?

Camping by the ocean is my favourite and my favourite hike is to Cape Scott, at the very northern tip of Vancouver Island island. That’s the one I recommend to everyone. You kind of reach a point halfway up the island where you realize: we’ve only really inhabited a small portion of this island. There’s nothing up there.

Emily Jackson camping in Canada near a turquoise blue alpine lake
Emily Jackson wearing a backcountry camping backpack

Why do you love backwoods camping so much?

Technology is a struggle these days: everybody’s on their phones and it’s hard to pull people away from them. When I’m camping, I’m removed from everything. I love it.

There’s something about having to work so hard to make a thing of soup that is so fun, too. We’re so evolved as a species and we don’t have to struggle to find much, so going out in nature and battling a mountain is really fun. Hiking 22 km is tough on the body so you really get an appreciation for what your body can do. When I see people in the clinic, lots of them are pretty active. It helps with perspective.

Why is it important for you to have that perspective?

People have an easier time when you can connect with them over common goals and understand why you want to work with them. Oak Bay is full of all different types of people from older, retired folks who are passionate about walking, to really high-level, competitive athletes. It’s really fun working with people that pursue a lot of exciting activities but it’s also fun to work with people whose goal is to get back to a certain level of activity.

Emily Jackson stands against a lone tree with a lake in the background, and a Banff mountain looming in the clouds behind everything.

Tell us more about golf and how that helps you with your practice.

I’ve started to get into golf in the last couple of years and I have a few female clients who are golfers. They’re probably my favourite group of people right now. There’s such a small group of women who golf (it tends to be a male-dominated sport), so I am happy to play whatever role I can to help them return to the sport!

Emily Jackson plays golf in the tropics.

Part of your focus and passion is on elderly client care. Why is that?

Part of it is because my grandparents live here. But also because the older generations have different needs. They may not be going back to 15km hikes or 18 holes of golf, but even just being able to go for a 15-minute walk, have the ability to pick up their grandchild, or sleep better at night helps them feel active. And so many people of the 80+ folks I’ve met have such amazing stories!

Has spending time with your grandparents helped shape how you work with your elderly clients?

Yes! I lived with them in 2016 for a summer while I was doing a co-op in Calgary. My grandpa was dealing with low back pain and my grandma had recurring rotator cuff injuries so I helped them using my background in kinesiology. Then their friends would come over and I’d help them, too! I’ve always enjoyed spending time with them.

Your first placement after your Master’s program was in the geriatric unit at St. Paul’s Hospital. What was that like? 

I loved it. If I had stayed in Vancouver, I would have tried to work there. It was so awesome. Half the people had dementia and I don’t know if they had better stories than the people who were more lucid! I just really like working with that population of people. 

What’s it like working with Sandy at Arbutus?

Sandy’s the coolest! She’s so supportive. One of my good friends from my kinesiology program – Lena – first told me about Arbutus. Then, while I was Vice President of my physio program at UBC, I helped put on a job fair with 150 clinics, so I spent a lot of time talking to all of them. It was really great! I remember when I talked to Sandy, she was up-island at the time and super casual and I thought, “This is the lady I need to work for.” She’s a great businesswoman and knows how to relax and have a good time [laughs].

What’s it like having such a supportive admin staff at Arbutus?

The physio I worked with before Arbutus (who made me realize I wanted to be a physio) once gave me a really good piece of advice: he said, “You need to work with a clinic who has a really good admin staff or you’re going to have a hard time.” At the time, I thought it was weird like, how could that impact your practice?

I think the staff at Arbutus are so incredible. And the mentorship at the clinic is so great.

How has your role as Vice President of your physio program at UBC helped you in your career? 

I had already been the social rep in our Physio program, planning events (which was challenging during COVID) so I thought, “I might as well just do it [be the VP].” It ended up being a lot of fun. I was able to have meetings with faculty that I might not have had otherwise. It took up a lot of time that I didn’t necessarily expect, but that helped me manage time better… because I had less time! It was also super rewarding seeing all the different things we planned that came to be.

I feel like I’ve always been pretty comfortable speaking with people but as the VP, it was an opportunity to speak with a different group of people. And, it helped when I had to start talking to people about work. Plus, there were certain times when I had to have hard conversations which are something we often have to do with clients, so that was good practice.

Before Arbutus you were working as a kinesiologist with clients at a clinic who experience chronic pain. What was that like and how has that helped inform your current work?

Starting out as a kinesiologist was such a good thing. Most of the clients I worked with had been experiencing chronic pain for two or more years and their lives were falling apart around them. And I’m trying to tell them they have to back to work! Looking back, I don’t even know how I had that role. But there I was, battling through.

Having those conversations were some of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had to have. It was a tough job but as hard as it was, when someone had not been working for three years because they were in the worst pain imaginable, seeing them get better over a 12-week program, it was really rewarding.

That program helped me figure out that I definitely didn’t want to be a doctor but that I definitely wanted to do physio because you get to spend so much more time with clients.

What do you really love about your job?

When it really comes down to it, I really just like spending time with people! All day long I get to talk to new people.

Why did you transition from kinesiology to physiotherapy?

I felt like there was a limit to the comfort and care I could provide for my clients in chronic pain. Having the therapeutic touch really makes a difference. I don’t think hands-on care is necessary for getting rid of pain (that’s definitely more education) but having that extra piece is helpful. 

Why is hands-on care important to you personally? 

Touch means a lot to me. I grew up in a close family and friend group and I love to hug people. I hate handshakes, I think they’re so weird! But it’s also been an interesting learning curve to realize that many people coming to physio don’t know you’re going to use hands-on treatment. It’s a good reminder for me that not everybody is comfortable with that.

What is so important about educating your clients? 

In most cases, 80% of what you tell someone in their first assessment, they won’t remember. So a lot of my job is educating, but not over-educating. As much as the hands-on treatment works, it comes down to my clients feeling empowered to make changes in their lives so that all their hard work sticks. We help them help themselves. I would love it if someone came in, I helped them, and they never came back!

Of course, I really look forward to seeing people out in the community back doing the things they like to do. Recently, most of the Arbutus staff ran the Oak Bay Half Marathon and so did a lot of our clients – that was so cool! 

I think there’s this idea out there that if you work in healthcare, you’re like a God but that’s definitely not the case at all. We can help you, but ultimately it’s you that needs to help yourself.

What’s new in physiotherapy?

One reason I wanted to get into this field was ongoing learning, it’s never the same thing every day and the information changes over time. So, it’s fun to keep learning. I’m really curious to see how technology will play a role in physio, too. I’m very curious to see how that will play out. Never would I ever have thought I’d be able to do assessments virtually (telehealth)!

You listen to podcasts! How does that help you learn and what are your favourites?

I used to think I’d have to subscribe to a bunch of journals to stay current with information but actually, I’m listening to a bunch of podcasts! The Journal of Orthopedic & Sports Physical Therapy (JOSPT) has a podcast so instead of reading an article, you can listen to the podcast summary. I think podcasts are a really good way to learn. I run a lot so I’ll pop one on while I run. I listen to one called “Psoas we were saying” but it’s more for physiotherapists.

Emily Jackson completing a running race with friends

You’re a Stephen King Fan!

I think he’s the best author I’ve ever read. It amazes me how well he can piece together a story. I’m deep into the Stephen King universe [laughs]!

I don’t know if I can pick a favourite! I really wanted to read his Dark Tower Series, but someone recommended that I start with other books to help set the context. So the first one I ever read was The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (I picked that because I love baseball and in the book, Tom Gordon is a pitcher for a baseball team). That was really good. But the Dark Towers series is by far the best series I’ve ever read in my life.

Recently my family and friends have told me I need to stop and venture into some other books.