Learn how real students navigate their way through the graduate school admissions process and grad school itself with our What is Graduate School Really Like? series.
Meet Shannen, an occupational therapist
Shannen, thank you for sharing your story with us!
Can you start by telling us about yourself and how we can learn more about what you do?
Shannen: Hi, thank you for reaching out to me; I am always grateful and delighted to share tidbits of my story and to share the profession of occupational therapy with others so that the question “What is OT?” will occur less and less. You can find me on my blog Shannen Marie OT or on Instagram where I post consistently about my experiences in healthcare as an occupational therapist as well as a wife of a resident physician (my husband starts his Internal Medicine residency in July 2019 with plans of pursuing a Hematology/Oncology fellowship afterwards!).
What made you decide to pursue a career as an occupational therapist? Was there a particular person or event that inspired you to choose this path?
Shannen: A combination of different events ultimately led to me leaning toward pursuing occupational therapy as my career field. Here are two examples of many that facilitated my passion and enabled me to narrow down some of my alternate career interests.
- As a young child I thought that I wanted to be both a pediatrician and a princess, and later considered being an orthodontist; as an adolescent, due in part to my hyperactivity and eagerness to be involved in multiple sports, I also considered a career in athletic training or physical therapy. All of these career interests developed out of my consistent passion and interest for people, health, fitness, and overall wellness, and concurrently, in combination with my personal positive experiences as a patient/client within those aforementioned fields. However, for me something was always missing the mark. I learned that I did not want to go nor did I feel compelled to pursue medical school (save that for my husband to do his – almost – doctor duties), nor did I want to go to dental school with additional schooling for orthodontics. As an athlete throughout childhood and a Varsity four sport year-round athlete throughout high school (cross country, cheerleading, soccer, track) as well as a collegiate runner, it just made sense for me to pursue athletic training or physical therapy, right? Not quite, but these career avenues definitely ignited my first interest in patientcare.
- One of my best friends decided that she wanted to be an occupational therapist one day, so naturally I wanted to be one, too (she later changed her mind). Her explanation of OT intrigued me which jumpstarted my beginning experiences of shadowing occupational therapists in many different settings. Through those brief glimpses of raw, genuine moments between the therapist and patient during my initial shadowing hours, I realized that this was the field that the Lord had planned for me.
What difficulties did you encounter during the application process? How did you overcome them?
Shannen: At the time, there was a program for advanced undergraduates to apply during their third (junior) year of undergrad to start their first year of OT graduate-level curriculum during their fourth (senior) year of undergrad.
My difficulty stemmed from toying with the idea of if I would even be able to adequately balance the demands of graduate school with playing a collegiate sport (races, meets, travels, need for sleep, appropriate nutrition…). Thankfully, I met with my coach and team who offered support and encouragement; with their positive remarks in mind, I just went for it and did not think twice.
Spoiler alert: I got in with the support of my family and friends; somehow through my teammates’ graces and a coach who was willing to allow me to practice sometimes at alternate times of day, I successfully balanced the two demands.
Where did you go to OT school, and when did you graduate?
Shannen: I attended the University of South Alabama for both undergrad and Occupational Therapy graduate school (2.5 year/7 consecutive semester Master’s program). I graduated from OT school in December 2016 and began my first OT job in January 2017. I completed the advanced undergrad/graduate school curriculum in 5.5 years.
What surprised you most about the program you attended?
Shannen: I think I was most surprised about the amount of time I would need to allocate to studying and applying the information outside of the classroom. I was thankful to have had prior knowledge of the environment/context of campus since I went there for undergrad. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of exposure I received during clinical fieldworks in a variety of different occupational therapy settings (spanning from OT in hospitals to in schools to outpatient orthopedics to feeding clinics to in the home…).
What is the process for graduates of OT programs to become licensed? Are there boards? Is it necessary to pursue licensure in each state separately?
Shannen: To obtain an occupational therapy license in the United States, one must graduate from an accredited OT educational program, complete and pass clinical fieldwork requirements, apply for and pass the NBCOT Certification Exam (formally known as the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy), and apply for a license and pay a fee for each state in which one desires to practice.
How did you find the job market in your field after graduation? Did OTs seem to be in demand, and if so in what practice settings?
Shannen: I thankfully did not have any difficulty in securing a job prior to graduating from OT school.
I would advise current students to look into completing at least one of their Level 2 fieldworks (12 week full-time clinical rotations) in the geographical area they presume they may want their first job to be in.
My former clinical fieldwork instructor played an immense role in me achieving the full-time position at a relatively new acute inpatient rehab unit around the area where I completed my final student rotation. I chose and wanted to work there due to it being within a hospital setting as well as due to there being multiple occupational therapists (as well as other healthcare clinicians) available to help me transition from my occupational role as student to clinician.
What inspired you to choose to practice in a hospital/rehab setting?
Shannen: I thrive in an environment that facilitates interaction with many people. In the hospital setting, specifically in acute inpatient rehab setting, I have the unique opportunity to really get to know my patients and their families since I see them 5x/week for 60-90 minute duration treatment sessions for typically 2-3 weeks.
I like the bustle of the hospital setting because I get to interact, collaborate with, and learn from a multitude of different healthcare practitioners.
Do you work exclusively with a geriatric population? Which demographic groups benefit from OT?
Shannen: The short answer is no, but the longer answer is that typically yes I do usually work with the geriatric population. I work strictly with adults and primarily work with patients 65 and older; however, I have had a handful of patients that are in their 20s as well as many individuals in their 30s to 50s.
How is practicing OT in a rural setting different from practicing in a more urban environment?
Shannen: I work in the acute inpatient rehab unit within a small hospital in a rural area that is just outside of a major college town. As you may have guessed, when you work in a rural setting, sometimes there may be less resources; however, there are lots of ways to overcome this by being diligent, responsive, and adaptable.
I wrote an entire blog post for Covalent Careers dedicated specifically to this setting and the role OT plays in it; you can find it here. Patients in this setting come from a multitude of backgrounds, upbringings, and medical histories. Patients in this setting are usually moderately to severely impaired functionally (which can include physical, cognitive, and emotional limitations or barriers) as well as may be medically compromised. They may have been admitted to acute inpatient rehab after an acute care hospitalization of which they did not get quite strong or independent enough to safely return home. On the other hand, patients can be admitted to this setting from home due to a functional and medical decline. The goal of discharge is to maximize functional independence and quality of life in an effort to return home, whether that consists of living alone in the home again, at a family member’s home, or in assisted living. Patients are admitted for a variety of reasons that often include multiple comorbidities (diabetes and HTN probably being the most common) and diagnoses that may include neurological (such as CVAs, TBIs, Guillain Barre, Multiple Sclerosis…), cardiopulmonary (s/p CABG, cardiac arrest…), cognitive (dementias…), and orthopedic (proximal humerus fx, hip fx, bilateral knee replacements…) conditions.
Due in part to living in the South which is considered the Stroke Belt, probably the largest percentage of my caseload at any given time is within the neurological standpoint – specifically CVAs and TIAs.
How does the field of OT differ from PT or from recreational therapy? Is there any overlap?
Shannen: I get this question all the time and to be honest I have several different answers because I usually turn the question back around to whoever asks me to begin with.
For example, take this time and close your eyes and prepare yourself for your life to be changed. Now picture yourself performing your typical morning routine whatever that may be. Perhaps you are like me and you get ready mindlessly, quickly pulling on your scrubs while simultaneously starting your coffee and haphazardly gathering your lunch to take to work. You quickly kiss your spouse goodbye and head out the door with your work lunch in hand and breakfast in the other to eat on the go in your car. You are driving in your car to work and you feel numbness and tingling in your hands and face. You try pulling over and you realize something is wrong. Your car gets hit from behind. You wake up and an unfamiliar man in a white coat explains that you had a mini stroke that led you to pull over to the side of the road before being hit from behind. You are thankfully okay but now have a broken femur and are weak on one side of the body.
OT is different than PT because OT will ask you about your roles as a spouse, as a parent, and as a person who has things they like to do, and will work with you to help you not only participate in them in the current state you are in through compensatory strategies or environmental modifications, but also will work with you to regain those motor and processing skills required to reengage in those tasks.
Physical therapy is wonderful, needed, and complementary to occupational therapy. The physical therapist will help you improve in your pain management, motor control, and sensation, and slowly with the PT’s guidance, you find yourself moving better again, making daily progress from tolerating sitting up with support to without support to eventually standing and walking with a little help.
The occupational therapist will be there to help you in your most vulnerable and meaningful moments – the moments when you progress to transferring to the bedside commode rather than the dreaded bedpan…the first time you shower since your accident…the moment where you pick up your child again using an alternate method that both compensates for decreased unilateral strength as well as utilizes appropriate body mechanics…the session where you can remember and legibly sign your name and fill out a check from memory again…
Occupational therapy enables individuals across the lifespan from neonate to the eldest of all to live life in the most meaningful of ways by focusing treatment on the therapeutic use of life’s occupations (activities that are necessary or important to function as a human). It is an evidence-based, health and wellness profession that views the person as greatly influenced by their environment and the tasks that a person chooses to participate in. OT practitioners believe in promoting health and preventing – or helping others live better with – illness or disability.
PT will help you walk again, but OT will help you put on your dancing shoes and dance with you!!
As a family with both spouses working in patient care, has your husband’s career path influenced your own work experience?
Shannen: My husband is an incoming medical intern (graduates from medical school in May 2019; begins his internal medicine residency in July 2019); therefore, his career has not quite influenced mine because his career is just beginning. But, I will say that my husband’s work ethic and compassionate nature definitely inspire me; he actually completed a fourth year of med school month-long clinical rotation in physiatry at the unit I work at which was quite a cool experience because we were covering the same patients.
I think it is very beneficial in my opinion to have a spouse who also is in healthcare because it provides an atmosphere of understanding that the other has probably had a series of high highs (patient successes) and low lows (patient deaths, difficulty in patient care circumstances, poor outcomes, etc.).
What is ABCsofOT? Why did you start the page and who is your target audience?
Shannen: #ABCsofOT is an Advocacy OT Alphabet Challenge that I created to promote awareness and understanding of the profession during the month of April which in the United States is Occupational Therapy Month. It was inspired by the many healthcare practitioners and students that I work with or have worked with that do not know or know very little about the magnitude of occupational therapy across a breadth of patient settings.
One of my goals in the future years is to target more physicians, current medical students, and aspiring premed students in an effort to expand their awareness of the different strengths occupational therapy can provide to their patients (so that more referrals are made which would therefore increase services to patients, groups, and communities who can benefit).
I started the challenge last year (2018), so this is year two (2019) in which I encouraged occupational therapy practitioners (OTs and OT assistants) as well as current and/or aspiring students to help me “create an OT alphabet.” Each day of the month there is an assigned letter. The objective is for each person to choose a word that begins with that letter and describe through a caption or picture how it references occupational therapy.
I have been reposting many of the posts on my IG stories. If you look up the hashtag you will see that it has became an international campaign of which I am grateful and excited for years to come.
Do you have questions for Shannen? Questions for us? Do you want to be featured in our next What is Graduate School Really Like? post? Know someone else who you’d love to see featured? Are there questions you’d like us to ask our students in this series? LET US KNOW!
You can learn more about Shannen by following her on Instagram. Or check out her blog, Shannen Marie OT.
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