Physical Therapy Resident Spotlight: Kristen Valasek, DPT

By William Alexander

Patients in Duke University Hospital’s Neuro Intensive Care Unit (Neuro ICU) and Stepdown Units have often suffered complex, devastating injuries that impair their abilities to walk, move, and function in their daily lives. Kristen Valasek, DPT, the subject of this week’s Spotlight interview, works with these patients on a daily basis as she completes her residency in neurologic physical therapy.

For her Spotlight interview, Valasek talks to us about how she sees each of patients as an opportunity to build a personal connection and help them best improve their quality of life. She also shares the joys of helping patients restore their ability to move and walk and enjoying traveling and exploring new places when she’s not at Duke.


What are your current responsibilities as a neurology physical therapist (and/or neurology physical therapy resident)? What does a typical day look like for you?

As the current neurologic physical therapy resident at Duke, my days vary every day! I am currently treating patients in the Neuro ICU and Neuro Stepdown units, but over the next year I will transition to inpatient rehab and outpatient settings as well to experience the full continuum of care. I spend one day a week with a peer mentor who is an expert in the field of neurologic physical therapy - they are fantastic to learn from. I have many opportunities to participate in interdisciplinary care and learn from providers in different fields. I also participate in a lot of continuing education through additional courses/conferences to further my knowledge in a wide range of topics all related to the specialty of neurologic physical therapy.

How and when did you first get interested in neurology and physical therapy? What interests you the most about this area?

I have always loved learning about the intricacy of the human brain, spinal cord, and nervous system as a whole. Combining this interest with helping individuals maximize their quality of life makes working fun and rewarding. I love working with the neurologic population because every person is unique and presents very differently, which requires constant problem-solving and creativity.

What do you enjoy most about working in physical therapy?

I enjoy getting to know all of my patients and building relationships with them while also helping improve their quality of life. It is really rewarding to see patients achieve their goals and return to what they love doing. The niche within neurologic physical therapy that I love the most is helping people learn how to walk again after they have lost the ability to do so.

I love that my work is very hands-on. It can be very physically and mentally challenging, but that is part of what keeps it exciting. Here at Duke, I love the learning environment and team-centered approach to patient care.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

One of the hardest parts is that I strive to provide the highest quality of care which can be mentally, emotionally, and physically challenging when working with this patient population and their loved ones in a complex setting.

What’s one thing you wished more patients and their loved ones knew about physical therapy?

Movement is medicine! Physical therapy is a fantastic field that can help people on a very broad spectrum. PTs can specialize in many areas including neurology, cardiopulmonary, sports, pelvic health, orthopedics, pediatrics, geriatrics, oncology, and more! We have clinical doctorate degrees and are very knowledgeable in the musculoskeletal system and movement disorders. PTs love to help people feel and move their best! It is usually not a quick fix – physical therapy takes time and patience, but is well worth it.

What other passions or hobbies do you have outside of Duke?

I love traveling and exploring new places - anywhere from a new coffee shop down the road to countries abroad! I enjoy being active and spending time outside. The beach is my favorite but I also love hiking in the mountains. I love spending time with my friends and family (dogs included!).

Valasek Grand Canyon
Valasek shared this photo of a recent visit to the American Southwest.