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When OTs Wore White Shoes

A Few Lessons that I Have Learned from my Patients and Clients

Published March 31, 2014 9:41 AM by Debra Karplus

Reminiscing on four decades of occupational therapy work reminds me of some lessons I've learned from people who received my services. As an OT student I was sometimes ambivalent about my course of study; family and friends weren't particularly supportive of my pursuit. They had no clue what occupational therapy was!  Growing up, a career in the business arena had been in the master plan; most of the people in my family have their own businesses.

Occupational therapy school was challenging for me, and the fieldwork experiences were no exception, with a rough patch in my personal life as the backdrop. My first clinical setting was at a mental health center. Clients dropped in daily to reap the benefits that professionals like me could offer.  None of them seemed particularly "crazy" to me. I was mesmerized by the creativity of many of these clients; it was often difficult to remain objective and detached.

My second assignment as an interning OT was at a large city hospital on the rehabilitation unit. Patients four times my age were being encouraged by me to work hard during treatment sessions (no pain, no gain) and embrace the adaptive equipment such as a clunky plastic stocking aid and long metal shoe horn to improve their quality of life. Their arguments against what I was offering trumped my lack of confidence, assertiveness, and experience.

My next three months were at a workshop for adults with developmental disabilities. I had much admiration for the clients in this setting. They seemed oblivious to the stresses of daily life, while I tended to fret over minor stuff. I felt that I had more to learn from them than they did from me.

Other interactions have since had me pondering some of the dynamics and interactions between therapist and patient. We all have patients we especially appreciate and remember. During my OT early years, there was Chuck, a fairly young patient to be living in a nursing home. Multiple sclerosis had sidelined this bright accountant. He'd tell the facility staff that he had lifted two hundred pounds in therapy each day. People warned me that he was lying, until one day, after talking with him; I realized that this "numbers cruncher" had calculated the total amount of weights for the entire session, and indeed he was accurate.  We need to listen to our patients and trust them.

In a hospital rehab setting, a patient confronted me while teaching him energy conservation and work simplification techniques. He reminded that I was rushing him, "You're asking me to hurry up and slow down", were his exact words. He taught me something.

In a recent Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting at school, I watched a mom become irate when one of the team members called her "Mom." She properly informed us that she was not our mom!  She was absolutely correct.

We have much to learn from the people who receive our services.  We just need to be better listeners and pay attention.

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