Baltimore, April 4, 2014-You may have seen a commercial featuring a bunch of guys playing wheelchair basketball. At the end of their game--which featured all the good-natured trash-talking typical of the scene--all but one of the guys gets out the wheelchairs. As this is a commercial for Guinness, the next scene shows the group at their local pub, sharing a laugh, a pint, and most of all a common bond. Although it is a beer commercial, Virginia "Ginny" Stoffel, PhD, OT, BCMH, FAOTA, current president of the AOTA pointed out that it could very well be a commercial for occupational therapy.
She showed this commercial at the Welcoming Ceremony and Keynote Address Thursday, April 3 at the 94th Annual AOTA Annual Conference and Expo. Although those men are actors, not soldiers, it exemplified the theme of the address, "The Wounded Warrior and the Art of Independence."
Stoffel said, "Occupational therapy is the key to providing hope for wounded warriors and providing for their reintegration." That message was exemplified by three extraordinary speakers. In front of a packed ballroom at the Baltimore Convention Center, Stoffel hosted a conversation with Sgt. Travis Mills, Sgt. Monte Bernado, and Corp. Tim Donley. All three were severely injured by IEDs in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Donley lost both legs below the knees; Bernado also lost both legs and one hand; Mills is one of only 5 Afghanistan soldiers to survive becoming a quadruple amputee.
Also present was Major Eric Johnson, MS, OTR/L, the first occupational therapist to deploy with a combat brigade and noted researcher on the field of combat TBI, who was one of their OTs at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Stoffel asked Mills, Bernado and Donley what was their biggest fear after their injuries? Mills confessed to his fear of not being able to take care of his family. Bernado spoke of the feeling of helplessness. Donley feared never being able to make a contribution to society.
Luckily for them, they had dedicated and skilled OTs. When Stoffel asked what occupational therapy meant to them, Mills said, "OT taught me a new way to do things." He recalled the story of how his OT made a splint and an adaptive spoon, teaching him how to feed himself.
Bernado described himself as independent and mechanically-oriented. "Therapy opened all these doors to the way my life was before. My OT and this hand there (he waved his prosthetic hand) have done that for me. There's nothing I can't do."
Donley echoed the door theme. He remembered feeling humiliated that is family and friends had to take care of him. "Major Johnson opened a new door to make me feel independent again."
Occupational therapy, of course, is all about returning clients to function. Mills said, "I'm not a sob story. I can get through life easier." He's grateful his OTs forced him to do the work and did not feel sorry for him. That tough love was the lesson he wanted other occupational therapists to take from his experience.
Bernado reminded the OTs in attendance, "It's not just a job. You're making our lives, our lives again."
Donley summed up the sentiments of all three wounded warriors and the thousands of OTs, OTAs and OT students at the conference. "OTs, they're changing the world for the better every day."