April is Occupational Therapy Month. As it comes to a close, we wanted to share a member spotlight on one of our long-time members, Julie Grant, who works as a school-based Occupational Therapist. We are grateful for Julie's willingness to share her journey.
In Her Own Words: Julie's Story
I was injured in a motor vehicle accident back in 1997, only 6 weeks into my freshman year at the University of Oregon. It was a big adjustment, as any injury is, but perhaps it was lucky that it was during a period where everything in my life was changing. I was anxious to get back to school, and focused on not wanting to get stuck in my small hometown, but I think I rushed it and went back the next fall (just a few months after finishing rehab). Looking back, I wasn’t quite ready to live on my own yet, but luckily I made it through.
On Recovery and her Journey to Occupational Therapy
Ironically, I started out in college as a pre-physical therapy major. I’d had an ankle injury when I was in high school, and fell in love with physical therapy. After my SCI, when I intended to pursue the same path, Vocational Rehabilitation discouraged me from this major. At the time I wasn’t a great self advocate, and I let them push me towards majoring in psychology. Psychology is a great undergraduate degree if you know what you want to study in graduate school, but I wasn’t sure if graduate school was even an option. Post-graduation I moved to Seattle and worked a variety of paper-pushing jobs. While living in Seattle, I happened to mention to a physical therapist that I had started out on the pre-PT path, and he asked me why I hadn’t switched to occupational therapy. I hadn’t had much OT during my rehabilitation days, mostly just some hand therapy to work on scar tissue on my hands, and to increase range of motion in my elbow. I didn’t really know what OT was all about, but after looking into it I fell in love. The idea of helping people figure out the things they want to do with what they have was so appealing to me.
I was nervous about sharing my plan with others, so I enrolled in a required anatomy and physiology course at North Seattle College. When that went well, I began applying to graduate schools. I was thrilled to be accepted to the University of Washington Master of Occupational Therapy Program on my first try, and enrolled the next summer. Initially I had too many broken bones to participate in rehabilitation, so I was sent home in a hospital chair with a huge cast on my arm and strict instructions on how to care for everything. Those were some rocky days, but my family was incredibly supportive and took wonderful care of me. There’s definitely a family joke that my older sister enjoyed giving me blood thinner shots. Once I returned to in-patient rehabilitation, I was very goal-oriented. I wanted to learn how to do almost everything (curb jumping remains a sore subject) and to do it by myself. I remember meeting with nursing staff and my physical therapist, and setting the goal to be able to shower independently. Typically patients only got to shower less than my standard daily shower (maybe once or twice a week), so I worked hard to make this happen! I was also curious about what my body could do - I remember one night I was laying prone, and I pushed up to see if I could go into quadruped. The next day when I showed off in the PT gym they were shocked (but I was also encouraged to experiment when I had a spotter nearby, which is a good rule).
On Struggles and Successes
I found my career a bit later in life (started my first OT job at 36), but I like to think that the various choices and experiences I’ve made along the way help me to be a better therapist. I particularly noticed this when it was time to apply the various theories we learned in school - it was a little bit easier for me to understand some of the situations because I’ve been a patient in a variety of settings (ER, ICU, skilled nursing, inpatient rehab, even Shriner’s Hospital). I also know what it’s like to re-learn all the important ADLs (activities of daily living).
In OT we use a variety of frame of references, and the bio-mechanical frame of reference has always made a lot of sense to me, as my personal experiences align. It’s very different to be a patient vs. a medical provider, but the lived experience is still very important.
Those of us with spinal cord injuries must learn to advocate for ourselves, or face stagnation or even failure. Despite all the progress that has been made - the world isn’t accessible. I think that developing self advocacy skills for myself has helped me to advocate for my clients, as well as being passionate about teaching them to advocate for themselves.
My life has also taught me that we are always growing and learning, which I think is a good approach to being an occupational therapist. Theories and best practice change over time, and I’m always excited to learn more. I know to listen to my clients, and appreciate them for who they are. Being disabled has also taught me that it’s critical to be flexible, which is an extremely important skill set for an occupational therapist!
Connecting with The Here and Now Project
I learned about the Here and Now Project when it was in its very early days, Kenny and I both attended a peer mentor training through the Dana and Christopher Reeve Foundation. The H&NP has been such an asset to my life, I always know when I need information about local resources or support I have a community to turn to. When I recently had a wrist surgery I was able to get loaner & donated equipment from H&NP members, which kept my out-of-pocket expenses down. I hope that I will be able to give back to the H&NP Community as well!
Advice To Her Newly Injured Self:
I would encourage myself to SLOW DOWN! I was always in such a rush - I even attended community college while I was senior in high school so I could graduate from college a year early. I rushed to go back to college after my injury, and I pushed to finish undergrad as fast as I could. I think this took away from many experiences - I wasn’t able to form deep connections to my community, and I didn’t get to explore my options very well.
For many years post-injury I participated in gait training, and a lot of my life was devoted to rehabilitation. It was never very functional, and I think it’s likely that was clear to the professionals early on, but I appreciate that they let me try until I was ready to stop. Now I look back and see all the missed opportunities for fun, developing deeper friendships, or pursuing a meaningful career earlier, but at the time it seemed most important. I think sometimes you have to explore options, even if they end up not being right for you.
I’ve been reminded of this as I healed from a recent wrist surgery - recovery isn’t linear and doesn’t look the same for everyone. I take comfort in knowing that I do push myself to do my best, and I do work very hard, but I’m easier on myself these days.
Although I know that I mentioned that I strived for independence, and I encourage self advocacy. But that doesn't mean I feel it's bad to need others, and sometimes we need others to advocate for us. The world isn't very physically accessible, and there are also systemic barriers that get in our way. I think that in my own life I feel best if I've done the most that I can for myself, but that's going to look different for every person. Occupational therapists work with their clients to get them to an appropriate level for them.
For some folks, independence doesn't mean that they do all of their own care, work 40 hours a week, and drive themselves to work every day. It might mean that they have help around the house three times a week, work part time, and commute with a co-worker or ride the bus. I love helping others figure out what is going to work best for them in their own lives. Learning about this type of work has been valuable to me, as I age with my own disability and my body, my needs, and my capacity changes. I try to embrace it!
Julie lives in Seattle with her partner Ross, and their beloved cat Nico. In her spare time she does handcycling and is beginning to compete in parafencing (wheelchair fencing).
Julie exemplifies the Here and Now philosophy to Do Life! Happy OT Month to Julie and all the other wonderful OT’s out there!