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"Life's too short to not go into a helping profession." That was the underlying thought that drove Laura Acrey away from pursuing architecture and interior design studies at the University of Texas at Arlington.
She wouldn't take the journey to becoming an occupational therapist immediately but instead she took a detour of a couple of years into elementary education.
After two years in a third grade classroom, Laura realized that she wanted to feel like she was reaching kids on a more meaningful level than teaching offered her.
"As an occupational therapist, I don't have a set curriculum. Rather, my curriculum is life skills," she explained. "I get to have a class of one instead of 20. That one child gets 100% of my time and attention for a full hour. That allows me to build a meaningful and personal relationship with the patient and their parents that I couldn't quite get in a classroom."
In that same vein, Laura relishes the creativity needed to develop that 'curriculum' for each patient.
Not only is every diagnosis different but patients with the same diagnosis have different needs and goals. "If you've met one person with autism, then you've only met one person with autism," Laura said. "You can't put all patients with a certain diagnosis into one bucket. As occupational therapists, we have to drill down to find out exactly what the goals are for the individual patients."
In order to focus on the child and not the diagnosis, Laura invests the time and energy in to truly listening to the parents. Success for that child can only be attained when they work together toward the goals the family has and not just what Laura thinks.
"It's not my job to prioritize their goals but I have to listen and see where I can fit in and be helpful," she said. "I really feel it's our obligation to take the time to listen and figure what people are going through, what their concerns are, what their questions are and what they really need help with. Just put ourselves in their shoes to understand their situation."
For example, success for a patient may rest in a simple key ring and not a $500 part from a therapy catalog. For one patient cerebral palsy, they were working on getting him to be able to zip up his jacket on his own. But such a task required gripping with his fingers and it just wasn't possible. Then, the solution presented itself with a basic key ring being attached to the zipper. This allowed him to hook it on his fingers and pull. That was the key to success.
"All it took was literally a key ring for him to gain a level of independence," Laura shared. "It was such a breakthrough for him and us. Both his family and I, as the therapist, experienced a full sense of satisfaction for achieving some long-sought independence."
Focusing on those handful of goals unique to each patients, together Laura and the patient can look at the clear starting point but can see an equally clear finish line.
"It's so rewarding to be able to look back and say, 'When you came in, you had five things you really wanted help with and now here we are and all five are tremendously better,'" Laura explained. "You really see them walk away being able to live literally a different kind of life than they were living before."
Reflecting on where she is now and the impact she sees that occupational therapists can have, Laura shared a look at her own childhood. She feels that she's been watching occupational therapy her whole life, it just wasn't called that.
With both my mother and older sister with osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease), she has seen the struggles of people in need of a little help in making life easier to live. "For us, it's really about making their lives better. It could be changing a person's environment, like adding pedal extenders to a car that my mom needed or a key ring to a zipper that my patient needed, or mastering the fine motor skills that people tend to think of about occupational therapists," Laura said. "Ultimately, it's about making accommodations to make life more functional and bolstering independence."
Bridging that gap between dependence and independence for so many children means that Laura definitely has found her place in a "helping profession." And Cook Children's is a better place because of the work of the 46 occupational therapists, like Laura, all across our system.