Thursday, May 9, 2013

What I Do

At my sister's suggestion I thought I would do a post about my work.  I am an occupational therapist. To those who are unfamiliar with the profession (like I was until well after my graduation from undergrad) this brings up the idea that perhaps I counsel people on the type of job they should get. Maybe I'm trained to administer those personality and aptitude tests with results like "congratulations you should be either a brick layer or an acrobat."

In reality, occupational therapy is a pretty diverse profession in the rehabilitation field. Every occupational therapist you meet may work in vastly different settings. We work with preterm babies in NICU's and with people creating their last memories in hospice. We work with young men and women returning from war without limbs or with traumatic brain injury and we work with individuals with schizophrenia working on reintegrating into their community. We work with children in schools who struggle with handwriting and with workers trying to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome. We help your grandma relearn to put on her socks after a stroke and help children learn to put on their shoes for the first time.

The thing that links us all together is Occupation. We use the word a bit differently than the rest of the world to mean, broadly, any activity that is viewed as having a unique meaning and purpose in a person's life. Sometimes we work to fix whats not working well with a person, so they can get back to what matters to them. Sometimes we work to change the environment so it works better for the person, just how they are. Sometimes we help the person find meaning in a new occupation and that helps them heal. Always we try to use meaningful activity not just a our end goal, but as the means to achieve it as well.

I work with children who are learning to eat. Some are new babies trying to get started despite a heart defect or being born with Downs Syndrome. Others are struggling with the transition to solids. Others are starting to learn to eat with their mouths after spending months or years being fed mainly through a tube in their tummy. Eating and feeding others are central occupations for children, and really, for everyone. I am also called a feeding therapist, or feeding specialist. I was lucky enough to fall into this area of OT thanks to my mentor and boss, Marsha Dunn Klein. She called me back after I made a phone call inquiring more about her practice while I was starting my job search after graduate school. She casually mentioned that I might have used her book in my feeding class. I said, I'm not sure, and moved on, thinking nothing of it. When I later looked her up I felt pretty sheepish to realize I was talking to the author of the book referred to in the field as "the feeding bible". I ended up taking the job with Marsha despite the lack of benefits and pay rate half of what I could have been making at a hospital or in the schools, because in therapy, mentorship matters. Marsha has inspired me to constantly strive to be the best therapist I can and to never stop asking question or learning.

The never ending supply of questions, of unknowns  of challenges, is part of why I love my work. I can's ever imagine getting bored. It also means I always feel a little inadequate and wishing I knew just a little more, but I'd rather feel like I have to keep swimming to keep my head above water than to drown of boredom sitting in the shallow end.

Feeding and eating is fascinating because of how complex it is. Just the physical act of chewing and swallowing takes a ridiculous number of muscles, joints, nerve connections acting in concert. And that can only happen after to you manage to coordinate you hands and eyes to successfully get food from the table to your mouth. Then you layer on top of that the complicated relationship between food and culture,  between mothers and fathers and their children, between the medical community and families. When you are thinking about a child and their eating you have to take into consideration their motor system, gastrointestinal system, respiratory system, sensory processing abilities, cardiac function, their family and cultural context, their individual history with food, and their unique personality (I know I forgot some, but its a start).

I could go on for probably longer than the attention span of any of my four or five readers, so I will pause here. In the future I will probably write more about my work. If you know me, you know I talk about work a lot, probably much to your chagrin. So this is just a quick orientation before I launch into my latest story about my cutest new client or the crazy doctor am working with now.

Let's end with the most important part: I love my job. When I was in college I wrote a list of ten life goals on a post it note on my computer desk top. It included "have a job I love waking up for" check. It also included "fall in love" check, and, "have children" check. So I am not doing too shabby.


  1. 3 great entries so far, Emily! I'm loving your blog :)

  2. Brick layer + acrobat = brickrobat? Acrobrick? Bric-a-brac?

  3. Nope, not to my chagrin ;) Keep it coming :)