Occupational therapist Kirsten Prouty, helping patient Al Leubber, enjoys being able to creatively meet each patient's unique needs.
Occupational therapists (OTs) have been around since the early 1900s, but those in the field say many people still don’t have a basic understanding of what OTs actually do.
“It is sometimes challenging to explain we’re about improving your occupation of living—what you do on a daily basis,” says Kirsten Prouty, OT at the Acute Rehabilitation Center at University of Minnesota Medical Center.
In basic terms, OTs help people reach activity and lifestyle goals through therapeutic use of everyday activities (or “occupations”).
For example, they may work with stroke survivors to regain the use of their limbs, with older adults experiencing balance or cognitive changes or with anyone recovering from an injury.
What they do
In the hospital, OTs evaluate new patients who might need their services—basically, those who need help returning to their normal routines, including patients with pneumonia, orthopedic conditions, stroke survivors or those with heart conditions.
During the evaluation, the occupational therapist will ask about the patient’s lifestyle: what their everyday life was like before the illness or injury, how it might relate to their illness or injury and what they want to ultimately accomplish.
OTs also try to gauge the patient’s mental state and motivation level: how hard a patient is willing to work will influence the intensity of his or her treatment plan.
“A lot of occupational therapy is about how the patient is feeling, how they see themselves in the world,” explains John Fleming, an occupational therapist at Fairview Southdale and Fairview Ridges hospitals.
“That can be really important, because what patients think about themselves really makes a difference in how they approach things and how much they want to recover.”
Why they do it
Kirsten enjoys finding creative ways to help people regain their independence and mobility to do the everyday things most important to them.
“Our focus is always on maximizing a patient’s function and everyday living skills and, in rehab in particular, you can really delve into what’s most meaningful to someone and create goals based on those specific things,” she says.
John agrees the variety and creativity involved in his job is what has kept him in the field for more than 25 years.
“You’re being a detective and trying to match activities with the patient in a way they’re comfortable with,” he says. “It’s always changing, it’s never old and it’s always individual; to me, that’s one of the key joys of being an occupational therapist.”
John, who has been with Fairview since 1990, actually went to college to become a teacher. Though he now focuses on OT, he has found a way to also pursue his passion for teaching: for 15 years, he has taught full-time in the occupational therapy program at St. Catherine University and recently earned his doctoral degree in educational leadership.
Kirsten also integrates her love of teaching into her OT work: she sits on Fairview Rehab’s Student Coordinator Committee and, for several years, she has served as a fieldwork education for OT students.
Learn more about rehabilitation careers at Fairview.