George Fox DPT graduate Gavin McBride is transforming lives as a cardiopulmonary physical therapist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

When Gavin McBride was in high school, he decided he didn’t want to attend college. And after he graduated, McBride worked at bicycle shops around the country, chasing adventure after adventure and dreaming of opening his own bike shop someday.

Little did he know that his passion for cycling would eventually lead him to a meaningful career as a cardiopulmonary physical therapist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“As a physical therapist who specializes in geriatric cardiopulmonary care, I know I have a unique place in healthcare,” McBride says. “The most rewarding part of my job is when I find solutions that make a difference in my patients’ lives.”

His journey into the field of physical therapy began when he was asked to attend a two-week training program for a major cycling company in Florida. He met a medical doctor, a physical therapist, and two individuals with PhDs in biomechanics at the program, illuminating a whole new world for McBride.

“That’s when I realized I could combine academia with cycling,” McBride recalls. “I wanted to be on the front edge of cycling, so I quickly became interested in pursuing a degree.”

Gavin and his dog on the waterfront

With this realization, he moved back home to Washington to attend Eastern Washington University (EWU) as a kinesiology and exercise science major. There, he formed lifelong friendships and connected with various professors, who allowed him to work on exclusive research projects and attend multiple educational conferences, enabling him to expand on the knowledge he gained in the classroom. 

Toward the end of his undergraduate experience, McBride consulted one of his professors about what he should do next, as he was torn between pursuing a master’s degree in exercise science or attending physical therapy (PT) school. Ultimately, his professor advised him to pursue a masters in exercise science, claiming his curious and inquisitive personality wouldn’t be satisfied in PT school because of the sheer amount of information he would have to learn in a short period of time. 

McBride chose the University of Utah’s master’s program in exercise physiology. After finishing the program, he moved back to his home in Hood River, Oregon, to do what he knew and loved: work in bicycle shops. It seemed as if his adventure into the world of higher education had just been a long detour.

He eventually landed a part-time position at a hospital in The Dalles, Oregon, working next to physical therapists. This is what initially inspired McBride to reconsider his dream to be a PT; he knew he had what it took, and he regretted having chosen to earn a master’s degree over attending PT school. With his wife’s encouragement, McBride applied to several PT schools – and he also arranged a phone call with George Fox’s doctor of physical therapy (DPT) program

Graduate admissions counselor Cristina Schmitt listened and explained that Fox was willing to work with him to help utilize as much of his previous credit as possible. “Cristina is one of the most joyful people you can meet,” he says. “Her joy and love for what she does comes across even over the phone.”

Years later, McBride is still thankful for Schmitt and the conversation they shared. 

“Cristina was amazing,” he says. “That initial interaction on the phone was a big selling point for me. It was the moment when I realized that someone in the program cared.”

Shortly after the all-important call, he applied to the DPT program and was accepted. From there, McBride learned from his peers and professors as they empowered him to reach for his goals. 

“As a student, one of the things I really loved about George Fox is that there are no guard rails. The culture there encouraged us to go for what we wanted, no matter how hard or difficult it might be. Everyone there was ready to help us get to where we wanted to go.”

And that’s exactly what McBride did. He’s now working his dream job as a geriatric cardiopulmonary physical therapist at the local VA hospital in Portland. 

“While I was at Utah, I realized I loved helping these older adults and learning how their complicated medical conditions impact their lives,” he says. 

At the VA, McBride enjoys more autonomy than most physical therapists are granted, working with older veterans who have sacrificed much to serve our country. “I get to spend as much time as I need with a patient,” he says. “Regardless of their situation, there is probably something I can do to better their life.”

To him, physical therapy is like a puzzle begging to be solved.

Gavin in a George Fox shirt

“At my job, I get to problem-solve and find solutions that maybe neither one of us thought of at first,” he says. “I get to connect meaningfully with all of my patients and learn something new from every one of them. The same disease can impact people in different ways, and I’m always learning and trying new things.”

One particular patient left a lasting impression on him. After graduating from George Fox, McBride was accepted into an elite residency program for cardiopulmonary care at the VA hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. While still early in his residency, he had a patient who had just undergone a double-lung transplant, a particularly intensive surgery that often results in many complications postoperative. The patient was an older man in his sixties, and McBride’s coworkers considered him an especially complicated individual. “He rarely got along well with providers,” McBride says.

Patients were required to attend extensive rehab sessions for three months after their surgery, and after several visits and conversations the two began to form a connection. But on the patient’s 12th visit to McBride’s office, he was extremely angry. His pulmonary doctor had just told him he would have to continue his physical therapy exercises at home, even after he was discharged from the hospital. 

“I talked to him about his frustration and I came to the realization that nothing about his rehab program was meaningful to him,” he says. “It had no impact on his life and what he wanted to do post rehab.”

McBride decided to stop what he was doing and refocus on the patient while asking him about his personal goals for physical therapy. In fact, he scrapped the entire program and made up a new, personalized one that helped the patient build his strength for specific activities that had relevance in his life. For example, he loved to go to antique stores and flea markets, so McBride had him practice lifting and carrying objects of different sizes and weights. For three to four weeks, that was all they did. By the end of their time together, the patient was thankful for McBride’s flexibility and the significant progress they made together.

This specific experience reminded McBride that what he learned in school about physical therapy was the basis for his practice, but not the be all and end all. 

“Something you learn as a healthcare provider is how to treat the person and not the diagnosis. I think George Fox really did a good job of teaching me how to care for my patients the right way. I take that to heart every day.”

McBride has come to understand the importance of both empathy and compassion in his own life and in the workplace. “Empathy and compassion are the two biggest driving factors in my life. If we could all have a little bit more of each, the world would be a better place.”

McBride’s preexisting empathy and compassion fuel his work, and his work in turn reminds and allows him to be more empathetic and compassionate in a sort of feedback loop.

“Those two qualities have an immeasurable impact on a patient, even more so than the exercises and tasks we assign them as physical therapists,” he says. 

It’s been 13 months since McBride finished his residency in Wisconsin, and he’s already back working full time as a PT in Portland. And this is all just the beginning for McBride. He has plenty of plans for his future – and the future of the VA. 

“I’m never going to leave the VA, because I love it here,” he says. “But now that I have this new unique specialty, I would love to use that and expand the care the VA can offer veterans.”

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