Young woman sits with hands in container of marbles

What they didn’t teach me in Occupational Therapy School

A blog post by Elizabeth (Martin) Vanderhorst, OTA 2014. Reprinted with permission.

April is Occupational Therapy Month. I thought I'd make a list of what they didn't teach me in OT school.

They didn't teach me what to do when a pandemic shuts down school for an indefinite amount of time.

They didn't teach me what I was supposed to feel when I watched my first take-down on the psychiatric ward I worked in.

They didn't teach me how to keep up an endless stream of chatter and build rapport with my non-verbal patients.

They didn't teach me how to quickly dodge pencils trying to stab me and teeth coming to bite me.

They didn't teach me how to heal a child's soul that was full of distrust and trauma-scarred.

They didn't teach me how to teach shoe-tying to a kid that "just won't get it the normal way."

They didn't teach me how to hold in laughter when having the most absurd conversations with my students.

They didn't teach me how to respond tactfully and redirect my brain injury patients speaking their minds about "how sexy you look today."

They didn't teach me how to use sarcasm to get my point across to middle school boys.

They didn't teach me what to say when kids talk about foster care and how much they miss their parents.

They didn't teach me what to do when an angry 6 year old is destroying a room.

They didn't teach me how to look at wound vacuums and tracheotomies without flinching.

They didn't teach me how to strongly encourage a 100 year old to follow hip precautions.

They didn't teach me about how tired and insanely grateful I was going to be after a long day doing a job I love.

But what they did teach me was invaluable.

They taught me about Therapeutic Use of Self and how to use my personality and strengths to relate and build rapport with anyone I'm around. The better I knew myself, the more confident I was to get outside my comfort zone.

They taught me that flexibility and creativity are key. You never know when a session will be held in a hallway, or when you will forget the supplies for your planned activity, or when a pandemic will come and you have to learn tele-therapy on the fly.

They taught me how to appreciate the value of each person I come in contact with and what dignity and respect look like in action. It doesn't matter what the diagnosis is, see beyond to the person shining out!

They taught me to break tasks down into tiny steps and to analyze how to adapt and change things to make people as independent as possible in the environments that are important to them.

They taught me to accept nothing less than empowering others, and to work hard to teach skills and advocate on behalf of people.

They taught me how to have a backbone of steel and a huge smile at the same time. In one of my former patient's words, "You're a pain in the ass, honey!" and my reply was, "That's why I'm good at my job." (I was her favorite therapist after that and she cried when I left that job.) The grace between holding my own and kindness.

They taught me to look at the whole being - mind, body, spirit. I may be working on a handwriting goal with a kiddo, but also addressing a fight they had with a sibling or peer, how to self-advocate, brain breaks and movement activities, conversations about their favorite toys, listening to their favorite music while we work, and any other thing that comes up in a session. This carries over into my personal life and how I take time to process and relax and train and learn.

They taught me many other things that have stayed with me throughout my OT career and life.

I am a proud Penn State graduate and am so thankful for my professors and my time there. I am even more thankful to work in a field I love, that is always growing and changing, teaching me to grow and change with it!

Happy Occupational Therapy Month! May this be the year everyone learns the magic that is OT.

"I'm an occupational therapist, an obscure profession if there ever was one. We are few and far between, maybe that's because we have chosen to serve people with disabilities. All disabilities. Not a glamorous endeavor, nor a lucrative one. And I say serve, because in helping we see weakness, while in serving we see wholeness. We've opted for wholeness nearly a century ago and have been at odds with the system ever since. We don't fix people, you see: with them, we simply try to find a way to meaning, balance, and justice. I chose occupational therapy because it blends science, humanism, intellectual rigour [sic], and compassion." - Rachel Thibeault