By Nektaria Riso
Occupational Therapy (OT) is a field within the health and rehabilitation sciences that helps people overcome physical and cognitive challenges. Occupational therapists (OTS) specialize in developing tools and teaching techniques that allow patients to participate fully in their everyday activities – the “occupations” that give life meaning and purpose. OTs work with people of all ages in a wide range of settings, including hospitals, rehabilitation centres, schools, and community centres. For instance, OTs can work with pre-term infants in acute care, in a school setting with children who have disabilities, stroke survivors attending inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation, and adults with mental health conditions. In Canada, the average salary of an occupational therapist is approximately $39.00/hour, but this varies significantly depending on whether the therapist is working within the public or private sector.
So, how do you become an occupational therapist? To learn more, I chatted with Miranda who works in a pediatric hospital. Miranda did not always know that she wanted to be an OT and she changed her declared major and minor many times throughout university. But once she settled on this career path, Miranda graduated with her Bachelor’s from McGill University and then was accepted into the competitive Qualifying Year of the Master’s of Science (Applied) in Occupational Therapy at McGill.
The details of occupational therapy are not always known to many people, so how did you first learn about it as a possible career?
Miranda: My journey to becoming an occupational therapist was certainly not a linear one. I knew in high school that I had an interest in working with kids but was unsure in what capacity. I was also involved in a lot of sports so, naturally, a physiotherapist came to mind, since I had a decent amount of exposure to them through playing soccer. At McGill University, I completed a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Psychology and a double minor in Education and Educational Psychology. This degree did not come without many changes of my major and minors until, finally, a family member told me about occupational therapy within the school setting for children with autism. From that point forward, I continued to pursue volunteering and research opportunities that tailored to my interest in occupational therapy, working in acute care, and pediatrics.
Looking back on the path that led you to discover OT, why did you choose to pursue it as a career?
Miranda: Looking back on the path that led me to discovering and selecting OT made me realize that rehabilitation and helping encourage others to achieve their fullest potential was always a strong interest of mine. This being said it was only when I heard about OT that I knew that helping children overcome the barriers affecting their development and academic functioning was something I was passionate about.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Miranda: A typical day starts around 8:15am when I settle into my shared office, make a coffee, and eat a little something for breakfast at my desk. Then, I open my client schedule and check for urgent emails. This is followed by collecting my client charts and performing chart reviews to see if they have been seen by other services or have received certain tests or procedures. I wait to be contacted by the department secretary when they arrive. When they are here, I select a therapy room, take out the developmentally appropriate toys, and join the family in the waiting room to inform them that I am ready to see them. I see anywhere between 4-6 kiddos per day. Lunch is always at 12:00pm. I always do my best to take time to relax and encourage other colleagues to come eat as well. It is easy to skip lunch when you see the reports that have to be written. I do my best to write emails and the reports of some of the clients I see on the same day, make at least 1 call and speak to a colleague in Physiotherapy to share my findings for a mutual client. We always do our best to reduce the number of times families have to come to the hospital, as this can become overwhelming for those whose children have complex needs. Since graduating from OT in October 2018, I have been very fortunate to still be working in the same centre. In the future, I hope to obtain a permanent position one day, as I not only find my job challenging, but extremely fulfilling. Since starting my career as an OT, I have had the opportunity to work on the inpatient wards (Medicine and Acute Care Unit) and within a variety of outpatient clinics (Neurodevelopment, Plastic Surgery, Rheumatology, Developmental Coordination Disorder, Swallowing and Dysphagia). My role as an OT in pediatrics includes performing standardized assessments of children’s development to determine the need for a referral to receive rehabilitation or community services, fabricating splints for a variety of musculoskeletal injuries, performing clinical feeding assessments and videoflurosocopy studies.
What is the best part about your job?
Miranda: This is a tough question because there are so many things that I love about my job. First and foremost, working with a pediatric population brings out the creative side of my personality. For instance, young children’s primary occupation is play, so finding ways to make recommendations and exercises fun, while working on their personal goals is essential. For example, performing the macarena as a stretching exercise for the upper extremity is something I recommend often! Another aspect of my job that I love is working with my clients’ families and sharing the excitement of newly acquired motor or physical milestones. It truly is a team effort to help each child grow and parents are important stakeholders on this team! The strength of families and the love for their children is always something that inspires me to be the best therapist I can be.
What are some of the challenges you face as an OT?
Miranda: I think anyone working in healthcare would agree with this next statement, but trying to keep up with paperwork is probably my biggest challenge. This includes writing reports, keeping track of my statistics (we have to justify every minute spent throughout the day to the government through an online system), completing home programs and rehabilitation requests among other clerical tasks like emails and voicemail, etc. - it’s hard to balance it all in a time efficient manner!
OT has gained a lot of visibility in recent years, yet do you think people still have misconceptions about the field?
Miranda: People think OT is a job primarily suited to women! I hope in the future more men get involved in the profession because, in my opinion, it is an interesting profession and nothing about OT is feminine through my eyes. The field of Occupational Therapy is predominantly female and, historically, this makes a lot of sense because the profession originated from household tasks like cooking and craft-making, which were, traditionally, female gender roles. Times have changed and so has the profession. Although cooking and craft-making continue to be meaningful occupations to some, the crux of what we do as OTs involves helping people maintain and regain function in the aspects of their life that are important to them. For instance, nothing about rehabilitating someone’s hand post fracture, treating an acute burn or assessing development screams feminine to me!
What would be your advice for someone who is interested in becoming an OT?
Miranda: To be courageous by exploring volunteer, work, and research opportunities as a student outside of your area of interest. I strongly believe this is necessary to determine or solidify a perceived area of interest, but also learn about interests that you have that you did not know existed within you!
Although I knew that my heart was set on working with children, I never imagined myself working in a hospital setting due to its fast-paced environment. It was only through my volunteer work with elders awaiting placement in a long-term care facility that I learned that the hospital setting was not as scary or bleak as I perceived it to be. During the time I spent volunteering at this hospital, I learned that I enjoyed watching different members of the medical team collaborate to ensure high quality patient care as well as putting a smile on people’s faces when they are faced with adversity. In the middle of a game of dominoes, one of the older men looked at me and said “You like being here with us. I can tell that you want to be here”. In this moment, unknowingly, I was making a larger impression than I could have imagined.
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