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Junior Physical Therapist of the Year: How One Officer is Chasing Her Dreams
by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chelsea Meiller
10 February 2023
CORONADO, Calif. --
In the back of a room filled with racks of weights, tension bands, and workout machines is a physical therapist gently stretching out a patient’s back. As she moves around her patient, she talks them through each movement. By the end of the session, the patient leaves smiling. With just enough time to clean her station, U.S. Navy’s Lt. Tia Laine Blythe is onto the next patient.
While growing up in Santa Clarita, California, Blythe always knew she wanted to do something in the medical field. She was in college at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for pre-medical education when someone mentioned physical therapy to her.
“I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor, but it wasn’t until someone mentioned physical therapy to me that I started looking into it,” she said. “Once I did, I realized physical therapy still has the medical component, but it also blends in sports medicine and personal training, which are other big interests of mine. I was sold.”
After completing her bachelor’s and master’s degree at UCLA, she went on to receive her doctorate in physical therapy from the University of Southern California. Upon graduation, she began working as a physical therapist in the civilian sector. However, after a few years of working, she was ready for a change of pace.
“Something was missing,” she remarked. “I was seeing the same patients day in and day out and doing the same things over and over. I just kept thinking ‘I can’t do this for the rest of my life, I need a change’. I sat down and thought about my goals in life and came back to the idea of joining the military.”
Though she had previously considered joining the military, Blythe felt compelled to follow the more traditional college-to-career path. After all, outside of her grandfather’s naval service in the 1950’s, no one else in her family served.
“The military was an interest of mine in high school,” she said. “But I did what I thought I was supposed to do – I applied to college, then one thing led to another, and I had graduated. I started working and I let go of that thought for a while.”
However, in 2018 she decided to revisit her interest in joining the military. This led to her commissioning into the U.S. Navy as a Medical Service Corps Officer and physical therapist. After completing Officer Candidate School in March 2019, Blythe checked into her first duty station at Navy Medicine and Readiness Training Command Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif.
“I really enjoyed working with Marines,” Blythe said. “But after a few years, I was ready for a new challenge, and I applied to Naval Special Warfare.”
In June 2021, she was assigned to the medical clinic at Naval Special Warfare Group (NSWG) 1 in Coronado, California, where she wasted no time integrating herself fully into her new environment.
“The cool thing about Naval Special Warfare is it’s an entirely new patient set,” she remarked. “The patients I see here are incredibly motivated; they’re the best of the best. They want to get better so they can get back to training and doing their job. The level of care is higher, the patients are more challenging, and it’s allowed me to grow so much.”
But it isn’t just her patients that are reaping the benefits of her dedication and passion – it’s the entire command and the commands NSWG-1 serves. Since checking in, Blythe has developed a pre-deployment combat medical course for Independent Duty Corpsman and SEAL medics, managed over 7,000 musculoskeletal specialty care encounters with patients, and embedded with a West Coast-based SEAL team for deployment.
While assigned to NSWG-1, Blythe – who was already a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist – also obtained her dual specialty as a sport’s clinical specialist. This makes her one of only seven physical therapists in the Navy to have obtained this dual certification.
Her steadfast work ethic did not go unnoticed. Each year, the Department of the Navy’s Medical Service Corps recognizes medical practitioners across different specialties by holding a competitive awards selection board. In 2022, Lt. Cmdr. Cortney Shewmaker, NSWG-1’s director of sports medicine and physical therapy, nominated Blythe for the Navy’s 2022 Junior Physical Therapist of the Year Award. In December 2022, Blythe won the award.
“Lt. Blythe was nominated for this award because she’s deserving of it,” said Shewmaker. “She’s one of the best physical therapists that I’ve worked with, both in the civilian sector and in the Navy. She is incredibly hard working, she cares about her patients, and she strives to make the physical therapy community better.”
This award not only helps Blythe in her future career aspirations, but it also helps to further the relationship and trust she has worked to build with the elite group of patients she sees every day.
“Letting the [Naval Special Warfare] community know that she is good at what she does and that she cares is huge,” said Shewmaker. “Trust is so big in this community, and this just shows her commitment to the teams and helps build that trust even more.”
Capt. David Abernathy, commander, NSWG-1, praised Blythe for her unwavering support of Naval Special Warfare.
“Tia embodies what Naval Special Warfare is all about,” Abernathy said. “Her talent, passion and relentless commitment speak volumes to her character, and the character we covet here within [Naval Special Warfare]. Tia actively seeks to better not only herself, but also our Sailors. She makes a positive difference every single day ensuring our physical therapy program stands as a best practice within the Navy. We are very proud to have her on our team.”
As for Blythe, winning the award was validation that her hard work is noticed and appreciated.
“Winning this award was extremely validating for me,” she said. “I spend 30 hours a week doing hands-on patient care, plus the administrative things that come with that. I’m also continually trying to grow and improve as a Naval officer. When I found out I won the award, it really confirmed that all the work and dedication I am putting into my job is noticed and appreciated.”
Blythe’s next set of orders after her tour at NSWG-1 will take her to Okinawa, Japan. From there, she hopes to complete a tour on an aircraft carrier and continue her career trajectory of growth and new experiences. She did have one piece of advice for aspiring physical therapists.
“My best advice for anyone who wants to be a physical therapist is to say yes,” she said. “Say yes to any opportunity you are given, even if it doesn’t sound good initially. You must be willing to push yourself outside your comfort zone to grow. You might flounder a little bit at first – everyone does when they’re doing something new or challenging – but that’s how you learn, thrive and ultimately succeed.”
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