Desiray Anderson gave up everything she ever knew to pursue a physical therapy career she never envisioned

Sometimes, the dream you’ve held onto your entire life isn’t necessarily the thing that’s going to bring you fulfillment. Just ask Desiray Anderson.

Anderson, a 2023 graduate of George Fox University’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program, always knew what she wanted to do. The girl who began playing volleyball at age 6 – and who later became a three-sport athlete in high school and a Division II volleyball player in college – had her sights set on a career helping athletes train and improve performance.

The passion to do so was sparked by her high school basketball coach, a physical therapist, who introduced her to PT practice through a one-month job-shadowing assignment. From there, Anderson earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Eastern New Mexico University, with an emphasis in pre-medicine and a minor in athletic training.

Funny, though, how things often don’t go according to plan.

Desiray Anderson in an exercise room

A Change of Heart

It all seemed so clear that a career in athletics was Anderson’s destined path when she arrived at George Fox as a first-year PT student in the fall of 2019. “When I got here, I was all about sports,” she says. “That was my identity for as long as I can remember.”

An intense application, interview and selection process landed Anderson her dream internship at a prestigious athletic training facility, the EXOS Athletes’ Performance Institute in Phoenix. She was all in initially but had a change of heart her second year at George Fox, when she came to a realization: She could make a bigger impact in her PT practice by working outside the world of athletics.

"I originally wanted to work with professional athletes. (Then) I realized there’s a population of people who can’t even get out of bed. My thought was, ‘I can make a larger impact working with that population in a primary care setting.’”

It wasn’t an easy decision to make. “It was very hard for me to let go of my dream of working with athletes to pursue something entirely different,” she admits. “I had no idea of what I was getting into.”

Anderson’s pivot was sparked by a simple desire. “I wanted to ease the pain of others while promoting overall health and wellness,” she says.

A Groundbreaking Approach

Today, Anderson is doing just that, working as a physical therapist at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla, Washington. Her job in primary care puts her in the same room with physicians to assist with musculoskeletal issues and to help them tailor interventions that can benefit patients – potentially without the aid of medication.

It’s a groundbreaking approach, as Anderson knows of only three clinics in Oregon currently employing the PT/physician team model – all started by George Fox. She hopes it’s only the beginning.

“Hopefully we’ll start pushing into urgent care, helping to take the burden off of the providers,” she says. “In the next five years, I would like to take the primary care model and introduce it to another hospital system. I want to be on the front lines of PT, getting to patients before they start developing chronic pain and require an official visit to physical therapy.”

Desiray Anderson and students in front of a presentation

A Rewarding Career

Already Anderson feels she’s been rewarded for making her career choice, in the form of patients who are appreciative of her care. One in particular – a Spanish-speaking woman who needed a musculoskeletal check on her back – stands out. She was in a wheelchair and in a lot of pain. Anderson taught her the importance of movement – employing the PT mantra “motion is lotion” – and worked on breathing exercises to help her modulate pain rather than take the opioid route.

“For me, that patient was really impactful because she was someone who didn’t know our language and didn’t know what was going on with her body,” Anderson says. “In these situations, people tend to get stiff and sedentary because everything hurts. I was able to provide her with just a little bit of education that changed her life.”

The patient returned a couple of weeks later, her condition much improved. Crying, she thanked Anderson in Spanish.

In another instance, while on a clinical rotation working with the Navajo population on a reservation in her native New Mexico, Anderson encountered a young person with a neurological condition that gave them Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms – involuntary movement, shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with balance and coordination.

Anderson, wishing to prescribe treatment that was effective and practical, suggested an unorthodox treatment: riding a horse with the help of her clinical instructor. “We reached out to an organization in New Mexico that allows people to ride horses therapeutically,” Anderson explains, “and it worked out well for the patient, who was happy to do something they enjoyed. I’m always trying to come up with exercises that are meaningful and functional to the patient.”

It was another instance when PT treatment – in lieu of more aggressive measures – proved effective. 

“A lot of people don’t know the scope of PT practice and don’t know how general health and wellness fits in with PT. It’s awesome to be educating people and helping them with health and wellness instead of just treating a specific injury.”

For her willingness to take a more unconventional approach, Anderson was awarded the DPT program’s “Innovative Practice Award” her senior year, given to the student who, according to the award’s criteria, was “instrumental in creating an atmosphere of passionate commitment” and who “was not afraid to take risks in suggesting and implementing ideas, volunteering in the classroom, and being a positive role model for the program.”

Desiray Anderson with her degree

The Encouragement of a Mentor

Attracted to George Fox because of the program’s emphasis on research and evidence-based practice, Anderson found a home away from home in Newberg. Beyond the curriculum, she valued the institution’s communal aspect and its commitment to helping future clinicians find tangible ways to move modern practice forward.

Everyone at Fox really cares about one another, and everyone here pushes you to be empowered, to be bold, and to make an impact wherever you go," says Anderson, who provided physical therapy to children with special needs during a service trip to Uganda.

“I couldn't be more thankful that I chose George Fox. I don’t think I would be the clinician and person that I am today without the faculty and students at Fox behind me.”

She credited the personal attention of faculty members and the variety of cases she saw – from stroke patients to Parkinson’s patients to those with spinal injuries – for preparing her well. One professor in particular, Ryan Jacobson, mentored her and served as a source of encouragement as she wrestled with the difficult decision to give up her lifelong dream of working in athletics.

“He sat down and had coffee with me several times, and we even cried together in conversations surrounding this tough decision to let go of everything I knew for what I could become,” she says. “At the bottom of all his emails to me, he wrote, ‘The important thing is this: to be able, at any moment, to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.’ I continue to read and be inspired by this daily.” 

Now, Anderson is truly living out her dream – even though it looks a lot different than the dream she originally envisioned.

“With PT, you’re able to spend so much more time with patients, and to dive into their lives,” she says. “You don’t just see your patients for 30 minutes before kicking them out the door. As physical therapists, we get to really know our patients as we develop an environment of trust.

“I want to give back and be a part of something that’s bigger than myself. That’s healthcare.”

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