Lucy Vanden Heuvel: Occupational Therapy
Occupational Therapy Today
A chance hospital encounter opened Lucy Vanden Heuvel’s eyes to a career possibility. FVTC’s OTA program helped open the door.
Lucy Vanden Heuvel’s future career was decided upon when she was a senior in high school and her grandmother had knee surgery. Vanden Heuvel was at a nursing home when an occupational therapist entered the room. The therapist helped her grandmother work on improving the range of motion of her knee and showed her how to use a sock aid so that she didn’t have to bend her knee to put on her socks. “I saw how much better it made my grandmother feel,” Vanden Heuvel says.
Now Vanden Heuvel is one of more than 80 students enrolled in Fox Valley Technical College’s Occupational Therapy Assistant
(OTA) program. In May, she’ll graduate with her associate degree. After passing her national exams, she will likely have her choice of jobs in one of the country’s fastest-growing employment fields.
Job opportunities for OTAs are expected to increase by 26% between 2008 and 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not all of those jobs will be in hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. While many OTAs still find jobs in those traditional venues, others are also working for home health care organizations, medical and adaptive equipment vendors, community organizations, and private treatment facilities. “The field is expanding,” explains Pat Holz, who has chaired the college’s OTA program since 1989. “Our students graduate with qualifications that give them many career options and ways to help people with a number of different issues.”
That’s exactly what Vanden Heuvel is looking forward to. She’s open to almost any job opportunity within the Fox Valley, from working with patients in an outpatient setting or providing care to clients in their homes. What matters most, she says, is that she’ll be able to help people. “Occupational therapy is one way that you can really better someone’s life,” she says. “That’s why I wanted to do this.”
OTAs help people develop, recover, or maintain basic living and working skills. They use everyday activities and adaptive equipment to help clients regain motor skills after an accident, for example, or to teach clients suffering from diseases or disabilities to master simple, daily tasks. Their goal is to help clients of all ages and all abilities lead independent, productive, and satisfying lives.
The demand for OTAs has increased over recent years, triggered in large part by the aging population and the changing health care system. Holz says the approach to teaching the program has changed over the years. When she earned her occupational therapy degree in 1974, many of her classes were lecture based. But that’s not the approach she and the other faculty members have adopted at FVTC. Students sit in groups of six and work together on projects. Although they occasionally listen to short lectures, they more often are engaged in hands-on activities or visits to off-campus sites to practice the skills they are learning. “It’s much more participative,” Holz says. “The students are, in essence, teaching themselves. They are learning by engaging themselves in the process.”
Occupational Therapy in Action
Besides the hands-on classroom activities and field trips to see occupational therapy in action, students enrolled in Fox Valley Tech’s OTA program are also required to participate in three fieldwork experiences. The first places students in a group or one-on-one setting for 27 total hours over the course of a semester; the next two are both full-time placements in different facilities with a licensed occupational therapist, or OTA, each running for eight weeks.
For her first fieldwork experience, Vanden Heuvel worked with Sandra Sandee, an OTR at BEAMING Inc., a nonprofit organization that uses horseback riding as a therapeutic activity for people with physical, cognitive, emotional, or behavioral disabilities. The horse’s movement, Sandee explains, helps the rider’s body in a number of ways, from improving muscle tone and posture to settling down an over-active nervous system. The sights, sounds, and smells of the barn environment and the horse can provide an important experience for people with certain sensory needs. Language and social skills improve through group riding activities.
Although BEAMING’s services are open to riders ages four through adult, Vanden Heuvel spent most of her time working with young children with special needs. She was amazed at the difference therapeutic riding made for each of them. One child who couldn’t ride or steer her horse independently when she started was completely on her own after several sessions. “It was such a cool experience,” Vanden Heuvel says. “It has really opened me up to different kinds of therapy options. I always left there with a smile.”
Vanden Heuvel is well prepared for whatever job she might find after graduation. “I’m looking forward to being able to use what I’ve learned to help people,” she says.
Technology at Work... and Play
New therapy innovations and technology are ushering fresh practices into the occupational therapy profession. The popularity of Nintendo’s Wii entertainment system, released in 2006, extends beyond use in households as a stereotypical modern teenage pastime. The Wii’s wide range of games and exercise programs now has a strong presence in the occupational therapy industry.
Wii game systems are used as part of occupational therapy routines for patients recovering from many conditions. Patients use the motion-sensitive game controller to enhance reflexes and hand-eye coordination, in addition to rebuilding muscle.
FVTC’s OTA program received a Wii system and other supplemental materials in the fall of 2009 to incorporate into the program’s curriculum as part of a collaborative grant from the J. J. Keller Foundation and St. Elizabeth Hospital community.