Occupational Therapist Job Description:
Occupational Therapists help people regain their independence in their occupations; everything they spend their daily lives doing: eating, dressing, bathing, making a meal, cleaning the house, taking their medications, taking care of their children, driving, shopping, working, playing.
When a physical disease or condition (hand injury, stroke, arthritis, Parkinson’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, low vision), developmental disability (autism, mental retardation, ADD/ADHD) or mental disability (schizophrenia, depression, PTSD) limits a person’s ability to perform their occupations, then an occupational therapist intervenes to help them achieve independence.
How do Occupational Therapy careers differ from a Physical Therapy or Recreational Therapy?
We all have the same goal and that is to get a person functioning at their highest potential. The focus of the occupational therapist is occupations, everything you occupy your daily life doing, the physical therapist’s focus is on mobility, and the recreational therapist’s focus is on leisure and play activities.
Can you describe the training needed to become an Occupational Therapist?
I was attending a community college studying Child Development with aspirations to be a preschool teacher. The director of the program advised me that I would be a fine preschool teacher, but a better Occupational Therapist; her best friend was one and she saw the same traits in me. Fortunately, it was great advice, I have loved what I do from day one.
I had never heard of occupational therapy before so I didn’t take any special classes to prepare for that career. Once I had made the choice, I applied to a university that was offering a degree in Occupational Therapy and began taking a year of prerequisite classes in anatomy, physiology and psychology. Once at the university, I took a semester of classes in gerontology, abnormal psych, neuroanatomy and neurophysiology.
Then I started the Occupation Therapy curriculum, which lasted two years, followed by two 3-month internships. Then I passed the national boards and found a job. My first job was wonderful and I highly recommend that all new graduates take their first job working in a teaching hospital. I got exposure to every aspect of occupational therapy and got to work with 20 OT’s.
Do you recall any memorable moments from your Occupational Therapy career?
I received a referral for an 11-year-old boy who had a malignant tumor removed from his spine. It left him paralyzed from the waist down and he had to endure the ravages of chemotherapy. I arrived on a sunny afternoon to find the house drawn shut with a thin, frail child lying in his hospital bed in the dim light.
There are five stages of grief identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This little boy was depressed, and, as I would soon find out, very angry as well. All my attempts at communication or engagement in activities were met with “Go away, I hate you.”
I arrived later that week to the same dark house. I came armed with a McDonald’s chocolate milkshake and fries. He refused to accept them or work with me. His mother asked that I try again next week. The following week the boy was sitting up in his wheelchair in the kitchen.
The room was dark, mini-blinds covered the windows. “The sunlight”, his mother said, “represented everything he could no longer do, go to school, play soccer, ride his bike.” This time the chocolate shake and fries were accepted. I also brought along a shiny-red colored reacher, it’s a 2-foot long device for picking things up. I started to demonstrate how he could use it. “See, you can reach over here and pick up this piece of candy, or you can pick up the remote control.”
The next item in my path was the back of his mother, standing at the sink. In an instant my good judgment vanished, perhaps I reverted back to my own adolescence. I said “Or you can pinch your mother’s butt.” Not hard, mind you, but she reacted with a squeal. I was mortified, I had actually pinched her on the butt.
Then I heard the laughter, a deep laughter coming from this young boy. As laughter is infectious both his mother and I started to laugh. As the laughter turned to tears, I left, it was their moment. I returned later that week with my bag of toys and treats from McDonald’s filled with a renewed sense of hope for this child; a black wreath on the door ushered me away.
What advice would you give to those interested in Occupational Therapy careers?
Spend some time observing and talking to some occupational therapists to be sure it is what you really want to do. Apply to the school of your choice early and find out what sort of prerequisites you will need. Anyone interested in occupational therapy careers should talk to their school counselor or the university they plan to attend. Generally the prerequisites will include biology, chemistry, physics, anatomy and physiology, statistics, psychology and social sciences.
What is the outlook for Occupational Therapist job openings?
Very good, because the baby-boomers are aging and everyone is living longer because of better medicine and technology.
What factors affect an Occupational Therapist salary?
The reimbursement from insurance companies, primarily Medicare. I am paid "per visit" and most of my career has been spent in the home health setting.
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