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A Day in the Life of a Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapists care for persons with disabling mental, physical, developmental, and emotional conditions and help them recover or develop and maintain their daily living and work skills. With clients who are overcoming everything from strokes to attention deficit disorder, occupational therapists help their patients have productive and independent lives. They help patients compensate for the loss of functions, as in the case of amputees or recently disabled individuals, as well as improve motor skills and reasoning and perceptual abilities. Some therapists work solely with specific disabilities or with certain age groups. Specialties include alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders, mental health, and industry-specific injury and pain management. Occupational therapy requires unequivocal dedication, and often rewards its practitioners with a tremendous sense of accomplishment. The profession calls for the best of those individuals who practice it; occupational therapists must be compassionate, caring, patient, and capable of commanding the respect and trust of people within their care. “The satisfaction you get from helping someone reclaim their life is enormous,” one student intern enthused. “Sometimes they come in depressed and angry and gradually their spirits are renewed with each day of therapy, and hope is in their eyes and their future.” The well-trained professional is familiar with a wide range of activities that will be employed as a matter of course in the patient’s recovery. Patients suffering from coordination problems, for example, may be given manual art projects, such as creative handicrafts, to improve hand-eye coordination. Practical activities such as gardening and weaving increase strength and dexterity. Although most occupational therapists work an average 40-hour week, it is often emotionally draining and backbreaking work. Practitioners are challenged to develop and implement exercises that will gain the maximum participation and interest of patients. Occupational therapists face significant challenges when dealing with patients with permanent physical handicaps, such as muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, or spinal cord injuries. They develop and teach patients how to operate adaptive equipment such as wheelchairs, splints, and other devices that allow individuals with limitations to exercise a measure of control over their environment. Occupational therapists who work with the physically disabled must have strength, agility, and stamina to help patients in and out of beds and wheelchairs and allow patients to lean on them while they assist them with various exercises, such as walking and lifting weights. Not all therapists need to be physically strong and powerful, but all, including industrial therapists who assist patients in finding and holding jobs, are challenged to inspire trust, motivate progress, and demonstrate concern and compassion.

Paying Your Dues

Starting in 2007, all certified occupational therapists will be required to have an entrylevel master’s or doctoral degree. Until then, they can get by with a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy. But they too will have to pass the test administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, which enables those who pass to apply to their state regulatory board to practice. Internships or volunteer work in the health care field demonstrate to potential employers the commitment that is a necessary prerequisite to this profession. Applicants should carefully consider their ability to physically and emotionally cope with the demands of the job. By far the most significant qualification applicants to this profession could have is a sincere commitment to the care of others.

Present and Future

Occupational therapy was established as a career in science after World War I, when the nation had to offer services to the thousands of injured soldiers who were returning to the United States. The American Occupational Therapy Association was established in 1923 and began offering accreditation in 1935. It now has approximately 35,000 occupational therapists associated with it. The field of occupational therapy is forecasted to increase its demand for new professionals at a pace faster than average, as compared to all other industries, for the rest of the decade. As scientific discoveries continue to extend the life expectancy of the average American, patients will need extensive therapy to combat a number of disabling conditions. Therefore, occupational therapists will have to update their knowledge of new adaptive equipment and its uses as they also develop new skill sets.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

If he or she is practicing in a state that requires licensing, the occupational therapist should be thinking of and making steps toward becoming a registered professional. The ambitious therapist seeks the guidance and advice of mentors and develops professional contacts. This is an ideal time for the practitioner to decide whether he or she wants to work exclusively with a specific age group or service the needs of individuals with particular disabilities.

FIVE YEARS OUT

With five years of on-the-job experience, the occupational therapist is now boardcertified and has updated his or her skills through job-training programs, college courses, and professional workshops. Thus the occupational therapist is ready for and probably actively seeking advancement. At this juncture an evaluation of existing employment opportunities or the possibility of shifting to an alternate career is foremost in the mind of the practitioner. Private or group practice is a distinct possibility for the five-year veteran.

TEN YEARS OUT

If the occupational therapist is not in a top-level administrative post at a health care facility after 10 years of service, then he or she should definitely be moving in the direction of establishing a private practice. With considerable years of experience, professional and personal contacts, and a growing number of adult day care programs, nursing homes, and health care agencies, private or group practice should be a lucrative and worthwhile endeavor.