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I was on a flight from Shanghai to Los Angeles some time ago, and found myself sitting next to one of the only other Westerners on the flight, an Occupational Therapist from Melbourne, Australia. Not being familiar with the medical field at all, let alone specific specialties, she filled me in on what the profession entails and allowed me a peek into “a day in the life” of an OT. So in case you’re anything like I was and don’t know the ins and outs of the profession, allow me a few moments to paint you a picture.
If you were to ask me the question, “Who are you?” I would probably answer, first, with my name, and then with what I do. Right? What we do tends to define who we are. I’m Sarah, and I’m a writer. I could get more spiritual on this, I suppose, but let’s stay super practical. Our occupation, what we do with our lives, is a statement of who we are as individuals. Even if I didn’t have a job, I would probably still define myself with something that I do, a hobby or favorite pastime. I’m Sarah and I love to sing and play the ukulele. Or, I’m Sarah, and I am an avid runner.
So what would happen if my ability to do those things I take for granted was to be taken away? Let’s say I was born with cerebral palsy or microcephaly and I had limited speech or motor functions. Or what if I had a condition that made basic hand/eye coordination tasks nearly impossible? Likely, my independence would be non-existent, I wouldn’t be able to work (or at the very least my job prospects would be few and far between) and I would be completely dependent on someone else to care for me. Of course there are varying degrees of disability, but I’m talking about the most extreme cases in a country that lacks resources to address them.
So now let’s go back to that question I asked before. If those things were all true of me, and you asked me, “Who are you?” I very well might respond, I’m Sarah, and I have a condition that robs me of my ability to do anything. My disease would define me. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be defined by what is wrong with me. And I would venture to guess that every single person on this planet – healthy or not – would agree with me.
And this is where an occupational therapist can step in and help a person regain their sense of self.
You probably know by now (or maybe you’re just joining us and you don’t, so I’ll give a little refresher) that Mission to Ukraine’s main focus is to serve families of children with disabilities. Every day at the headquarters in Zhytomyr – doctors, physical therapists, special education teachers, and counselors – they bustle through the office, usher patients into their brightly colored rooms, and work with them to help improve their quality of life. It’s a joy to witness, truly.
I want to share a little bit about MTU’s Occupational Therapy program, not because it’s better than the other specialties or superior to any of the other areas that the organization focuses on. Certainly not. What it is, though, is unique and fascinating and – honestly – just plain cool.
Let me introduce you to Olya, Mission to Ukraine’s fully licensed and certified occupational therapist, and also possibly one of the only ones in the entire country of Ukraine. It’s hard to say that definitively, but the field is small and underappreciated, and most of the therapy within the borders is a more passive type of physical therapy. Olya was trained in the United States, but chose to return to her home country and serve the marginalized there.
That in and of itself is huge, and I can’t emphasize enough how rare it is. You see, “brain drain” happens all the time in countries that have a struggling economy and a lack of professional opportunities. I love Ukraine, but it would be a tough place to live, day in and day out. If we were talking strictly about a life of comfort, I would pick the USA every time. And I guess that’s why I’m so thankful that there are people around the world who sacrifice that life of comfort to help those who need it most.
I’m thankful for my Nepali doctor friend who studied in the UK and now travels through rural villages, offering free medical services. I’m thankful for my Indian friend, a big-time executive for a major airline, who left his job and invested all of his money (and personal time) into running a home for the destitute and dying in Chennai. And I’m thankful for Olya, who gives hope of a better life to kids with disabilities in Ukraine. The sacrifices of all three are undeniably beautiful (and rare).
Within the context of Mission to Ukraine’s work, Occupational Therapy interventions look like this: helping children with disabilities engage in activities of self-care and play. Put simply, the goal is to help each child gain independence in activities and daily living. The path to get there will look different for each child, which is what makes the job of an occupational therapist so challenging (and even more rewarding).
Side note: My mom just walked in to the room where I’m writing (I’m home for the holidays) and I said, “I want to communicate how awesome this program is at MTU, but how do I do that through a blog?” To which she quipped, “Well, that’s what they pay you the big bucks to figure out, right?”
So let me share this story with you, and hopefully you’ll be inspired and want to know more (and you can find all of that at Mission to Ukraine’s website… but don’t leave me yet!).
I had multiple opportunities to sit in on OT interventions with Olya. Every case was unique and presented its own set of challenges. I was impressed, to say the least, with her ability to be patient with children who were less than cooperative (that’s putting it nicely) or unresponsive. She also shared with me how many of the kids have progressed and made huge strides in their journey toward gaining independence. One little girl in particular (her picture is the main one on this blog), who barely had function of her hands not long ago, was able to button and unbutton a coat and she is even learning to ride a bike (even though her feet have to be strapped on to the pedals)!
My favorite, however, was a little boy (I’ll call him Maxim) who came in late in the day, one of the last appointments. He was there with his mom and looking awfully cute with his blue hoodie that featured a soccer ball and the phrase, Play your best, stitched above. He can’t walk without help and his hands and fingers are contorted in a way that makes them, for all intents and purposes, useless. Without the use of his hands, he is not able to do basic activities that stimulate the brain and help it grow and develop in the way that it should. This is one of the goals of occupational therapy – to use alternative methods that allow a child to develop his or her fine motor skills (which then allow them to perform day-to-day activities), which then allows their brain to develop appropriately for their age.
I was sitting in the small room with Olya, Maxim, and his mom, watching this all unfold before my eyes. Olya asked me, “Could you pass me those scissors?” and then right there in the room, she traced his hand on a piece of printer paper and cut out the stencil she had just drawn. What is she doing? I thought. As if in response, she said, “I wish I was more crafty. I’ve sort of had to learn to be in this job, but it would be easier if I was more creative.” I would be horrible at this, I thought in the response in my head. My spatial reasoning is terrible. I wouldn’t have the first idea of where to even start.
Using the stencil cutout from the printer paper, she placed that on a piece of splinting material (this stuff goes for $100 per 18×24 sheet) and proceeded to cut that out. Then she boiled water in an electric kettle, poured it in a small plastic bowl (these are not ideal conditions for this exercise), and dipped the cutout in, which made the material pliable. She took the now soft splint and fitted it over the brace Maxim was already wearing, and included a small plastic ball inside. Take a look at the pictures if you’re having a hard time visualizing what I’m describing (I’m barely following and I was there).
The point of this whole thing was to attach Velcro to the ball inside the splint and then put the other side of the Velcro on items such as a puzzle so that though he couldn’t perform the task before, he was now able to complete it! Check out the video below to see the finished product.
Mobility, the opportunity for key developmental learning, and just the basics of self-care are all things we take for granted. When a disability limits a child’s ability to function, it’s easy for them to lose hope and that sense of “self” – their core identity – because there is no possibility to do anything. But the team at MTU is changing kids’ lives one at a time by giving them back that hope and allowing them to thrive. As Olya said to me on her way out of her room that day, “OT rocks!”
About the Author: Sarah is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She has her undergraduate degree in Business Communication from Azusa Pacific University in Southern California and is currently working on her Masters degree in Organizational Leadership. Sarah recently finished a two and a half year assignment working for an anti-trafficking NGO in Kathmandu, Nepal, where she had the opportunity to mentor and lead college students in ministry abroad. She is mildly obsessed with Jeopardy, coffee, running, and the Atlanta Falcons.