On October 8, 2015, I was fortunate enough to have had the chance to interview Donald Balmforth, consulting physiotherapy for the Montreal Canadiens. At the time, I had recently begun the first year of my Professional Master’s in Physical Therapy at McGill University. The idea of interviewing Donald struck me after after speaking with a colleague of mine, who had told me, “the best way to become a better leader is to learn from the other leaders in the field. Learn everything you can about them. What did they do to get to where they are now? What obstacles did they encounter? The more people you speak to, the more common threads you will find, and that’s how you start to pick up on the tricks of the trade”.
An Interview With Donald Balmforth, Consulting Physiotherapist for the Montreal Canadiens
Anthony: How long have you been a physiotherapist for? What made you choose this field?
Donald: “I’ve been a physiotherapist since 2004. I always knew I wanted to work in the sciences and I was always playing sports growing up. The sports environment really appealed to me. I injured myself one day playing hockey and when I went in for treatment, I found it so interesting. My physiotherapist, at the time, was working with a football team so I was like “forget about my ankle, tell me more”. That’s where I got the idea of becoming a therapist. I must have been 16 or 17. From there, I applied to McGill University in Physical Therapy and the Athletic Therapy program at Concordia University. I chose the Physical Therapy program at McGill University and I graduated in 2004″.
Anthony: What is your background in physiotherapy?
Donald: “It all started in my second year at McGill University when I started working with the McGill football team. I worked with them for 3 seasons. That led to a position with the Montreal Alouettes, whom I worked with for 4 seasons, and from there I sprang into working with the Montreal Canadiens. However, ever since I graduated, I’ve always worked full time in a private clinic. It’s like having two full-time jobs but I find it refreshing. I really have the best of both worlds”.
Anthony: How did you get involved with the Montreal Canadiens and Catalyst Santé?
Donald: “I started working with the Alouettes before I graduated from McGill. The Alouettes’ head therapist, Scott Suter, was a great mentor, and once I graduated, I started working at his private clinic, an Action Sport. Scott and I left Action Sport at about the same time, and as a new graduate, I was eager to learn as much as possible. I took advantage of an opportunity to work with Dave Campbell, an athletic therapist/osteopath at Concordia Physio Sport. I really wanted to see how things were done differently. Dave taught me a lot, and gave me the opportunity to work with the Canadiens as he introduced me to Graham Rynbend, Head Athletic Therapist with the Club. Six years later, Scott and I rekindled our professional relationship, around 4 years ago, and that’s how we began at Catalyst Santé”.
Anthony: What is your role in each setting?
Donald: “Here at Catalyst Santé, I can treat anyone: all sorts of orthopedic injuries, adolescents, geriatrics, referrals from players’ mothers or grandmothers’, etc. We want to promote wellness through physical therapy. My clientele is a huge spectrum. Over with the Montreal Canadiens, I’ll work 3-4 morning a week, 3-4 hours per morning. I see myself as treating three categories of players. The first group is what we think of most: injured players who need rehab to get back in to the line-up quickly and safely. The second is with players who are safely playing, but still have pain and/or limitations. This is probably where I dedicate most of my time. Lastly, the third group is one of my favorites: prevention and performance, where I work with players without necessarily having any particular complaints. With the Canadiens, we are a team of three physical therapy consultants. There’s myself, Steve Villeneuve, and Matthew Romano who is also an athletic therapist”.
Anthony: How is Catalyst Santé different?
Donald: “Scott and I realized that we didn’t like working with the traditional half hour treatments. Clients would come in, take off their boots (in winter), we’d ask them how they’re doing, and before you know it, you’re 10 minutes in to your 30 minute treatment. We found that we didn’t have enough time, in a half hour block, to treat and manage a client’s rehab plan effectively. Clients need to be heard and we simply felt rushed as we tried to connect with our clients while assessing, treating, reassessing, treating, educating, and showing exercises. I began to notice that my last client of the day was not getting the same energy and enthusiasm as my last. So, that’s how we developed our one hour appointments here at Catalyst. As a client, you get the attention you need and, as a therapist, you are not running around. You are able to focus on your client easier, and stay fresh. The concept at Catalyst Santé is that your work should be your playground…feel great, treat great. This being said, should it be a more appropriate plan, we do offer 30 minute time slots, but 60 minutes have become the standard. We also don’t use electromodalities very often here and our clients do really well without them. Having the one hour time slots allows us to really check joints below, joints above, and work on stability. We get to focus on manual skills and more on exercise and I’d like to think we help the cause of the problem a little more as well as the symptoms. I’ll gladly do 8-10 hours and see 8-10 clients and I’d like to think that my first client and my last client get the same experience. I’m not drained. Seeing 16 clients in a day in half hour spots, and having the charting to do afterward, can make a day seem a little harder even if it’s shorter. At Catalyst, continuing education is also paramount, whether it is an informal in-service or taking courses overseas, ongoing education is a must. I feel like my answer would not be complete if I did not add that we really love the open concept here at Catalyst Santé. We want to feel like a second home. We have private rooms, but generally, if our clients are comfortable in the open, they can speak and laugh together during the treatment. They live the success of others and talk about their experiences. I think if a client is able to smile and laugh during their treatment, they have an opportunity to get better a little bit quicker”.
Anthony: Are you still involved with McGill University?
Donald: “Yes, actually. I’m a supervisor for students during their clinical placements. I’ve always wanted to work with students. I think when you teach, you learn. Even when it’s about fundamentals, like endfeels, you can go back and review things and it sets a great foundation. I also go in as a guest Faculty Lecturer for certain courses”.
Anthony: If you could recommend one course to take post-graduation, what would it be?
Donald: “I think there are three levels of education. The first is day-to-day: just speaking with colleagues and discussing cases and treatment ideas. It’s the cheapest, most accessible and most common. The second level is in-services: they aren’t expensive, are quite accessible and they allow you to go into more depth. The third and final one is formally taking a course. However, going into a course blind is difficult. I always like to get a taste for a course before committing valuable time (and money). I’ll speak to someone who has taken it and try and get a feel of the concepts and how they could fit into my way of treating. That being said, I would recommend this: I think when you go to do a course, especially if it is a one-technique course, you need to be confident about that course and you can’t go in with the misrepresentation that that course can solve everything. Sometimes, you give somebody a hammer and everything looks like a nail. You can’t just go down one path. You need to find what works best with your style and what gets you the best results. What I find amazing is taking all of the positives from each course, and putting them together. It’s hard to choose one course and I would suggest continuing manual therapy in conjunction with soft tissue courses, be it a Mulligan courses, Active Release Technique (ART) courses or a muscle activation technique course. However, I find dry needling to be phenomenal so I would have to suggest that one. It’s one of the more cutting edge courses out there right now”.
Anthony: Who was your most influential mentor throughout your career?
Donald: “I’ve been fortunate enough along the way to have had many mentors, a lot of small lessons, and some bigger ones! The two most influential career mentors would have to be Scott Suter and Dave Campbell. Scott and Dave are great clinicians, great teachers, and great people. These are three separate qualities and both Scott and Dave excel in all of them. They really have a magical way of putting things together; they are unselfish with their knowledge and have a genuine desire to help people. I have learnt a lot about therapy and about life from them”.
Anthony: What qualities do you look for in a new graduate?
Donald: “Everything that you can’t teach someone! Everything that can be taught, can be learnt. When I worked with the McGill football team and the Alouettes, I was still a student and far from being a skilled therapist but I was ready to learn and I was eager. This is what got me my opportunities. When you have someone with a passion, not only for physiotherapy, but any domain they would like to work in, and you combine that with a genuine desire to help people, it’s a magic formula. Everything else concerning how to get people better will come with time and experience. A passion to learn and a genuine desire to help others are truly important. You simply can’t teach these qualities”.
Anthony: If there was one thing you could go back and do differently, what would it be?
Donald: “There are many smaller things. I would already taken more courses. When I take a course, I end up having flashbacks of clients who I had a harder time treating or only got a certain percent better, and I always think to myself, “why didn’t I take this course earlier!”. That being said, if I could really go back and do one thing differently, I would have been a better student. I had a lot of things going on during my time at McGill. I had a full schedule, working at Glass Experts to earn an income, with the McGill football team as well as the Alouettes to gain clinical/on field experience, and to be honest, non-concentration courses were not my priority at the time. When I look back now, I’ve had the chance to work and surround myself with incredible people. I have been very fortunate”.
Anthony: Where do you see the profession of physical therapy in 20 years?
Donald: “That’s a good question. The things that I did 10 years ago are not the same things that I am doing now. I mean, when I was in school, stretching before exercise was the thing to do. Things are definitely evolving. We are a young profession and if you look at the momentum of the profession, knowledge is now growing at an exponential rate. It is becoming a challenge to stay ahead of that curve. I think our ability to help people in the future is going to be a lot more than it is now, and that such a future is not so distant. I’d also really like to see more physical therapists collaborating with other health professionals. I love a interdisciplinary approach: a kinesiologist, an athletic therapist, a physical therapist, a nutritionist, a psychologist. I can’t get everyone better, and the more you know about other professions, the better you’ll be at referring your patients to another professions. This is a huge opportunity to best surround our clients for more of a general wellness approach”.
Anthony Teoli MScPT