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Occupational Therapy Careers: Changing Lives and Communities

by South University
October 31, 2017
An image of a healthcare professional assisting a woman.

From working with individual patients to making public spaces more accessible to all, occupational therapy professionals have a profound opportunity to change lives. Within this field, both occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants play critical roles in helping people recover and cope with illness and injury, as well as regain and maintain functional independence in their day-to-day tasks.

"The occupational therapy field attracts compassionate, caring professionals who will go to the mat to be the advocate for their clients. We're very caring people. That is the core of what we do," says Terrie Nolinske, the Director of the Occupational Therapy Assistant program at South University, Tampa.

The Power of One-on-One Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy professionals work with patients to assess their strengths and needs before developing diverse treatment plans unique to each individual. From there, they monitor and work with patients to help them achieve their goals, documenting progress as it occurs. Occupational therapy can involve working with patients across the lifespan and include:

  • Helping children with disabilities lead a more fulfilling life
  • Providing recovery plan and treatment regimens for adults
  • Assisting older adults with physical and cognitive changes
  • Recommending adaptive equipment and instruct patients on its use
  • Performing patient evaluations and ongoing patient care

Occupational therapy professionals may work in a wide variety of settings, including hospitals, a patient’s home, mental health centers, rehabilitation centers, community centers, schools, and continuum of care communities offering independent living, assisted living, and memory care. Occupational therapy assistants operate under the supervision of licensed occupational therapists, and both therapists and their assistants may collaborate frequently with other care providers, such as psychologists, social workers, physicians, and speech pathologists.

Occupational Therapy Expertise Applied on a Bigger Scale

Those who study occupational therapy and understand the needs of individuals with disabilities, injuries, or illnesses can also apply their knowledge to improve the accessibility of everyday spaces. For example, occupational therapists may collaborate with employers to create work environments that accommodates their employees’ needs. Other occupational therapists may provide support in designing parks, shopping centers, and other public areas to ensure that everyone can equally experience and enjoy these destinations.

Nolinske, for example, has applied her occupational therapy knowledge to support both the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and the Tampa Museum of Science and Industry.

At the Lincoln Park Zoo, she spearheaded a Universal Access Initiative which included developing new hands-on programs for zoo visitors with special needs, introducing additional tactile elements across exhibits, and writing staff guidelines on how to assist people with disabilities. Through this project, she led the zoo to win a national accessibility award.

In 2004, at the Tampa's Museum of Science & Industry, she led the creation of a 13,700-sq. foot interactive exhibit, The Amazing You, which explored key stages in the journey through life, including developmental milestones as well as common health issues and their treatment.

For Nolinkse, the project tapped into everything she’d done, learned, and experienced throughout her career. Designed to be accessible to all ages and abilities, all visitors left with a better understanding of human development, from birth to death.

"The end of life area of the exhibition prompted visitors to talk about what they would do 'if.' What would they put into a living will or durable power of attorney for healthcare? Would they seek treatment or not if the cure was worse than the disease?" Nolinske explains. "It was an incredibly powerful exhibit."

Prepare for Your Career in Occupational Therapy

If you're interested in preparing for a career in the occupational therapy field, explore our Occupational Therapy programs online or contact us today at 1.800.688.0932.

See suprograms.info for program duration, tuition, fees and other costs, median debt, salary data, alumni success, and other important info.

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Meet Cathryn Baack: South University, Cleveland Graduate Nursing Program Director

by South University
October 30, 2017
Dr. Cathyrn Baack.

Officially, Cathryn Baack (PhD, APRN, FNP-C, CPNP-Retired) has been a nurse since 1986. As a caregiver, her experience goes back even farther. When she was 14, she served as a nursing assistant in a local nursing home. Before that, she helped to care for a family member with disabilities.

"It never crossed my mind that I would do anything but nursing," reflects Dr. Baack, now Assistant Professor and Program Director for the Graduate Nursing Programs at South University, Cleveland.

After starting her nursing career in a CCU step down unit and then working in long term care, Baack spent over a decade in pediatric nursing, an area she was drawn to while raising her own daughter with special needs.

"That special needs child, who is now 27, not only got me working with children, but she also was instrumental in me deciding to go into family practice," Baack explains. "As she aged out of pediatrics, I realized that many families need someone to follow them throughout their lifespan."

In 2015, Baack added a Family Nurse Practitioner post graduate certificate to her list of educational achievements—which already included a bachelor's, master's and PhD. Today, in addition to her role at South University, Baack works as a family nurse practitioner in Medicare management and risk assessment.

Having cared for patients at all stages of life, Baack always brings course material to life by connecting what’s she teaching in class to real situations from her past. By drawing on her own personal experiences, she also teaches students to better empathize with patients.

"I've been a patient, I've been a family member, I've been a parent, and I've been an advocate. I spent a good deal of my daughter’s childhood in and out of hospitals and doctor's appointments. I taught my daughter to advocate for herself, so I know the importance of teaching patients to be their own advocate," she says. "These are all things that I bring to the classroom."

Baack has worked in education since 2006 and joined South University in 2014. Her expectations are high and she challenges her students to learn from each other, to seek out their own answers and solutions, and to commit to being lifelong learners and self-starters. Every week, she asks students to share and discuss their own clinical experiences, from what was most interesting to what prompted the toughest ethical questions.

"I want them to learn from each other as much as they learn from me. Each of them brings something unique to the class," she says, noting the diversity of age and experience among her students. "I can’t give them everything. They have to take responsibility for their own education too, so they need to look for those experiences that they, and their classmates, can learn from."

For Baack, the joy in teaching comes from watching as her students grow and their thinking evolves. "Even when they're working their regular RN jobs, they start asking, 'What do I think is going on with this patient? What can I find in their charts that would confirm what I think their diagnosis is?’ Differential diagnosis starts coming naturally without them thinking about it."

A lot of those rewarding moments occur, she says, after students complete tough classes like Advanced Pathophysiology or Pharmacology. Then, in their practicums, things fall into place, as they realize how well those courses prepared them for making and explaining clinical decisions, including teaching patients what's causing their symptoms and how their medications will help.

While she expects a lot from her students, Baack gives a lot back as well and her students become like family. She hosts pool parties for classes approaching graduation and frequently receives texts from her students; they all have her cell phone number. "They know, no matter what's going on, they can contact me and that I'm there for them," she says.

Her dedication stems from a true pride in her work. "I tell all of my students to find their passion. If they don't love the job they're doing then look for a new one, because the job they love is out there. If you don't love what you're doing, you're not doing yourself or your patients any good," she advises, adding, "I have the best of both worlds because I love to teach and I love to work with patients and I get to do both."

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