Occupational Therapy career attracts a very specific personality profile

by Nyla on October 29, 2019 · 9:00 am

Amy Deavours Occupational Therapy Assistant SJVCHaving a strong interest in the medical field’s physical therapy arena is not enough to forge a successful career as an Occupational Therapy Assistant. There are other, more important components, that predict a good match.

“There are subtle differences in personalities of Physical Therapists compared to Occupational Therapists/Occupational Therapy Assistants (OTA),” says Amy Deavours, faculty member for SJVC’s new Occupational Therapy Assistant program starting soon on the Fresno campus.

“Physical Therapists are generally a little more black and white in their thinking and focused on the (injured) body part or system, whereas our field is more ‘holistic’; and we see the person and all they do and are, and what is causing dysfunction in their life,” says Deavours.

“OTAs work with sensitive issues such as bathing, dressing, toileting, physical and mental self-care and other personal issues. The best practitioners are compassionate, warm, friendly and get people to open up about themselves because we need to know as much as possible about the life of this person to best help them.”

She draws this distinction, not to pass judgement on those Physical Therapists they often work alongside, but to help those who want the responsibility of an emotionally deeper and potentially longer support role in a patient’s life.

“We often deal with clients at their worst or most hopeless and scariest moments in their lives,” Amy offers. Occupational Therapy Assistants work with those who may have physical and/or mental disabilities from birth, childhood trauma, Down’s Syndrome, brain injury, stroke, accident or any other long-term or situational condition that requires temporary or ongoing rehabilitation and readjustment toward restored mobility, mental acuity and optimal life and work function.

Occupational Therapy is a calling, and it is loudest to those who recognize themselves in the melody of its heart-song. “You shouldn’t go into this profession if you don’t value kindness, compassion and empathy,” says Deavours. “People who are climbing the ladder of success are generally not people in this profession. We don’t need the glory, the accolades; we just want to do what’s best for that person and see them getting better. It’s more emotionally invested. It’s not the title; it’s the doing.”

One of her favorite quotes summarizes her sentiments about Occupational Therapy. “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” George Eliot (pen name for Mary Ann Evans, novelist)

Amy Deavours heard that siren’s song when she was casting about for where she wanted to point her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and her Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy. She had worked as an Early Intervention Specialist and most recently as an Occupational Therapist in Outpatient Pediatrics where she worked with 3 to 8-year-olds with autism or Down Syndrome. Most of her young clients were barely walking and were non-verbal or had minimal verbal skills.

As much as she loved her patients in her early career, Amy always sought something that might have greater impact on those she touched. “I wanted something that was going to marry the psychology of patient care with my love for human anatomy and physiology – the human sciences of muscles, mechanics and diseases.”  Her deeper dive into Occupational Therapy was the perfect match.

She felt her role’s perfection – and reward – with a patient with whom she became very close. He was 21-years old and the victim of a gang member’s gunshot to his head and who was further injured in a car accident on his way to the hospital. “He came in very low-level functioning, barely breathing,” she remembers. “I wasn’t sure if he could ever eat again, or even swallow food, much less ever walk again. Over time he became more alert but would not show signs of understanding. “He wouldn’t even blink or track me when I walked across the room.”

Amy worked with him 3-days a week for several months, never knowing how much he was absorbing. “I would do the talking for both of us,” she says. “At around month four I had said something funny, and he laughed. I asked, ‘Did you just laugh?’. He nodded and barely go out a ‘yes’. Everyone in the room just stopped; even he looked surprised! We were crying, we were so happy.”

The therapy team’s goals accelerated. “We started working on more cognitive exercises, how to write again using his left hand, trying to prepare him to return to independence and viable employment.”

Her patient regained slowed speech, could walk using a cane and enrolled in community college where he used an iPad with speech recognition capabilities for class note-taking. The Student Disability Center assigned a student to help him get to his classes, and he learned to navigate public transportation.

Deavours now brings the accumulation of her education, experience and gifted instruction skills into play as Program Director for the Fresno campus’ Occupational Therapy Assistant program. She was instrumental in helping to develop the OTA program curriculum and student externship requirements.

“I really want our students to have the most exposure to as many (therapeutic) populations, such as pediatrics, geriatrics, mental health, outpatient and inpatient rehabilitation and hospitals as we can give them,” she says. “They will get a ton of exposure to better determine what field they want to go into within OTA. And, I want them to see that what they’re learning in the classroom is what they will experience on the job.”

As the campus readies the new program roll-out, Amy envisions the outcome. “It feels kind of surreal to know we will have students in the classroom really soon,” she says. “For two years I have trusted that we would get to this point we are at right now – ready to take students. We have a new lab and equipment and are in the final stages of recruiting faculty. I can almost see the students sitting in class.”

And Amy knows every one of those students will share specific traits of their profession. “We’re all the same in terms of our values, compassion and wanting to help people.”

But don’t mistake empathy for weakness or a too-soft-to-stand-firm posture. It takes strength to give so much to others without depleting your own reserve.

Amy keeps that reserve at maximum level both on and off the job. She and her husband, Joey, like to participate in Spartan races. Like Tough Mudder, Spartan competitions challenge physical and mental endurance to its limits and rewards the survivors with a better-defined sense of self. Their 5-year old son, Andrew, also gets into the age-appropriate challenges.

Amy Deavours has made a life and a career out of pitting strength against weakness, recovery against disability and light against the dark. And she wants to spread the energy. “If I can teach ten other therapists to do what I do, then they can help a lot more people than I could help just by myself.”

The math works.

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