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The new normal: Occupational therapy assistants help patients return to day-to-day activities

September 21, 2015

Michelle Billings spent 30 years as a registered nurse, most of them working at Cook County Hospital. She says she watched the treatment of patients become increasingly specific as her career evolved. "Nurses do a lot today, don't get me wrong, but the number of specialists in medicine today has exploded, and I'm including people in and out of the hospital," says Billings, who retired in 2012 and now lives with her daughter just outside of Atlanta. "The best part is that all these people aren't doctors. You're getting people to do very specific things, very finely tuned treatments. And you don't have to go through all those years of medical school to do it."

Billings says her daughter planned to become a physical therapist but was forced to delay her plans when her youngest son was born with a rare blood disease. "She dropped everything and took care of him," Billings says. "I was still in Chicago at the time and she was in Tinley Park, so I would go over every day to help. I could tell she was getting that itch to go back to school and finish her degree but she didn't want to leave her son that much. She didn't want to dedicate that much time."

Billings says she mentioned her observations to her daughter. "I told her you can start working in medicine now and go back and get whatever degree you want later," she says. "We started looking at all the other things she could do."

Eventually, Billings' daughter, Mary Thompson, decided to try a two-year program in therapy at South Suburban College in South Holland and worked toward an associate's degree as an occupational therapy assistant. "I wanted to be involved in therapy but at the time, it was unrealistic to think I could devote a few years to my degree," Thompson says. "My son needed a lot of my time but when my mom came down, we worked out a compromise and I went to school."

Thompson says at first she felt like she was selling herself short. "I had big ideals when I was in my teens," she says. "I wanted to be a doctor, maybe a surgeon. I became interested in physical therapy after I busted my ankle back in Chicago slipping on ice but even then, it was physical therapist or bust."

Eventually, Thompson, 27, began to see the value in the role of the occupational therapy assistant. "If people go into health care for the right reasons, they go in to help people," she says. "I'm helping people every day. I can live with that. OK, it's more than 'I can live with that.' I'm proud of that, actually."

A typical day

Thompson, who moved to Georgia last year, says she works with seniors, most of whom are recovering from falls and other accidents. "I do the basics -- stretch them out, work with them on their movement," she says, adding that she follows a plan set by an occupational therapist. "Most people I work with treat me like a peer, so I feel like I'm in on the treatment," she says. "And those who don't are still teaching me something. It's fascinating to me, really, how creative some of our OTs are. They will modify an exercise so it's tailored perfectly to our patients. And then I put that plan into action."

Each day has its challenges, Thompson says, including difficult patients and busy schedules, two things she's learned to confront head-on. "The patients are depressed. They're older, they're hurting and often, they're alone -- no family coming around to help them out," she says. "But I help them see the bright side. You help someone learn how to get dressed or bathe themselves after an injury and you're giving them back part of their life. You do that, and then you make them see that, and then you've got them. Those frowns go away. They get excited. They want to get better."

And the "getting better" is always the reward. "It's something to see the smile on someone's face when they feed themselves for the first time in a few weeks or even a few months," she says. "You get a lot of those rewards. They tell you they want to get back to normal, to get their lives back. I tell them we'll work on the normal, but they have to be open to the new normal. A lot of them like that. That's something they can live with."


Salary: $48,940 per year; $23.53 per hour.

Education/certification: Occupational therapy assistants need an associate's degree from an accredited occupational therapy assistant program. In most states, occupational therapy assistants must be licensed.

Job duties: Occupational therapy assistants help patients develop, recover and improve the skills needed for daily living and working. Occupational therapy assistants are directly involved in providing therapy to patients. Assistants work under the direction of occupational therapists and work primarily in occupational therapists' offices, hospitals and nursing care facilities. Occupational therapy assistants spend much of their time on their feet setting up equipment and working with patients.

Job outlook: Occupational therapy assistants are expected to be hired at a rate 41 percent higher than other occupations, far outpacing the national average.

Source: The U.S. Department of Labor.

(C) 2015 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

(Source: chicagotribune.com)


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