By Linda Stewart Ball
When Hope Gillis tells new patients she’s their occupational therapist, she sometimes gets a puzzled look.
“I’m retired,” they’ll say. “I don’t have an occupation anymore.”
Then Gillis, an occupational therapist at Accel Rehabilitation Hospital of Plano, kindly sets them straight: “Well, yes you do (have an occupation). It’s your daily activities of life and living.”
As an occupational therapist (OT), Gillis’ job is to help people recovering from illness, disease or accidents learn how to do everyday tasks and self-care despite their physical or cognitive limitations.
“Your job is never the same every day because every person (you treat) is different,” said Gills, who has been doing her “dream job” 17 years. “My patients teach me a lot about life.”
April is Occupational Therapy Month and a great time to celebrate the profession with a few facts.
- To become an OT today, you must have at least a master’s degree in occupational therapy and be state licensed. Those passing a national certification exam are called occupational therapist registered (OTR).
- Occupational therapists can earn more than $80,000 a year on average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- They work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, schools, nursing homes, daycare, rehab centers, outpatient clinics and private residences.
- There’s a huge demand for OTs and it is only expected to grow as baby boomers age. (By 2060, there will be more than twice as many Americans who are at least age 65.)
- To be successful, occupational therapists should have excellent communication and people skills. OTs and occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) need patience, empathy, creativity and the ability to adapt to different settings.
At Accel, an inpatient rehabilitation center, OTs do the initial patient evaluation, determine the plan of care, handle discharges, the paperwork and oversee the occupational therapy assistants.
Kim Hunter, who has been an OTA for 23 years, began in pediatrics. She’s worked at Accel for five years.
“I enjoy meeting people and seeing the progress they’ve made when they leave,” said Hunter, who helps patients complete their occupational therapy exercises.
Many of the patients at Accel are older adults, though not all. They have suffered strokes that left them partially paralyzed and unable to speak, undergone knee and hip replacements and even amputations. Some have had traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries while others are recovering from falls that resulted in concussions and broken bones.
Hunter said the hardest part of her job is watching patients struggle emotionally as they come to grips with their new normal.
“Their whole life has changed,” she said, explaining that in some cases, the things they could easily do before their injury, they won’t ever be able to do again. Occupational therapists and assistants help them adapt.
Patients learn to dress and bathe themselves, comb their hair and brush their teeth. If they live alone they’re taught how to make simple meals, such as boiling eggs, making a sandwich or opening a can of soup. They learn how to safely get themselves in an out of bed, to and from the bathroom, and even in and out of cars.
During a recent therapy session in the spacious hospital gym, Hunter was working with an elderly woman recovering from a stroke and viral infection. The woman sat in a wheelchair trying to stack and restack colorful cones. Her speech was impaired and the fingers on her right hand were so swollen she could barely move them.
“What color is this?” Hunter asked while holding up a cone. “Is it blue?”
“Yes,” the woman replied.
“No, it’s red,” Hunter said softly. “Now I want you to hold on to the red cone for me. Can you put it on top?
“Good job, Mrs. Beverly!” Hunter said, after the woman, slowly, painstakingly moved the cone to the top of the stack. “That was hard work.”
The hour-long OT session focused on grasping and releasing objects along with following instructions. Throughout it, Hunter’s voice was calm and her tone, encouraging. At one point, she took the woman’s right hand, gently stretched out her fingers and massaged her palm and the back of her hand to reduce the swelling and improve her range of motion.
Although Hunter treats about five to six patients a day, she said at Accel it’s always one-on-one; ideal because it’s more personalized. “Every place isn’t like that,” Hunter said, noting that in some hospitals, occupational therapy is done in groups of four or five people, which makes it more challenging.
Accel, a 42-bed hospital that has two full-time OTs and one OTA, is a StoneGate Senior Living supported community.
In addition to its rehabilitation hospitals, StoneGate provides support services in all areas of senior housing and long-term care, including skilled nursing, assisted living and memory care in Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas.
Patients receive three hours of therapy each day at Accel, which includes physical and speech therapy, depending on the person’s diagnosis.
“We treat the patient holistically and that’s what I enjoy about being in OT,” said Gillis, who has worked at Accel four years. “It’s not just treating the body part, it’s the mind and body.”
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2018). Occupational outlook handbook.
American Occupational Therapist Association, Task Force on External Issues (2018) Executive Summary.
Fact Sheet: Aging in the United States – Population Reference Bureau.