What is an Occupational Therapist?

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April was National Occupational Therapy (OT) month. As a mom, it was too hard to get this post out in time to celebrate during the month of April… but we can celebrate our OT friends outside of the month of April, too! As a physical therapist (PT), I often work alongside Occupational Therapists, especially in my previous job as a pediatric PT. I studied alongside OTs at the University of St. Augustine here in Austin. You can find OTs in hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, home health, pediatrics, outpatient clinics… anywhere you can find a PT, you can usually also find an OT. But so many people don’t know what OTs do, so I wanted to share a little about this sometimes lesser-known therapy — the therapy devoted to the things that occupy your time (occupation). 

The newest branding platform for OTs is “Occupational Therapy: Living Life to its Fullest,” which really explains well what I see my OT friends doing in their work. While some people classify PTs as the “legs” (strengthening, walking, standing) and OTs as the “hands” (gripping, eating, buttoning), this doesn’t encompass everything Occupational Therapists do! Anything you spend your time doing, from work, to hobbies, to writing, hygiene, cooking, dressing… Occupational Therapists do it all. Working with kids, I also saw OTs working on helping little ones learn to handle their emotions (self-regulation… check out my post on hugging if you want to learn more!), socialize, and take turns. I’ve also heard it said that while PT gets you walking, OT makes sure you’ve got pants on when you get out the door! 

In an effort to make sure I represented OTs well, I interviewed a few. 

Mallorie Garcia, MOT, OTR. Mallorie practices here in Austin, TX. 

Annie Wendig, OTR/L. Annie practices in Florida. 

How would you describe Occupational Therapy to someone who had never heard of it?

M: “People explain the difference between OT and PT by stating: PTs will get you up and walking but without OT you will be up and walking naked!”

A:  “Patients in the hospital DAILY tell me after introducing myself, ‘No thanks, I don’t need a job,’ so I am constantly explaining OT to patients as well as most medical staff. I explain to them that I am there to assess how they are able to perform their everyday activities like getting dressed, making sure they have endurance to stand at the sink to perform grooming routines, and make sure they can overall perform the simple tasks we do on a day to day basis.” 

In what setting(s) do you work?   

M: Full time outpatient pediatrics; part time Texas Neuro rehab, University of St. Augustine lab assistant, and Skilled Nursing Facility. 

A: Inpatient Acute Care

What are typical things you’ll work on with a patient?

A: Annie works in a variety of units (different focus for each unit) — in the oncology unit, the “focus is on managing symptoms secondary to chemotherapy or radiation, such as cancer related fatigue.” She sees post-surgical patients “after total abdominal hysterectomy or breast reconstruction,” where she works on activities of daily living (ADLs) “such as dressing within any surgical precautions they may have.” In a Progressive Care Unit (PCU) where patients have a higher level of care, she focuses “on managing basic ADLs such as dressing, toileting, and grooming.”

What is one misconception about OT you’d like to clear up?

A: “One misconception about OT I would like to clear up is that we don’t assess or need to assess patients out of bed mobility, that PT does that. That is NOT true and it is necessary, … “as out of bed mobility and sit/stands are integral parts of basic ADL’s. For example, without assessing a sit/stand I cannot get a good clinical picture of how someone will perform with donning underwear or pants since the final component is a sit/stand in order to complete the dressing sequence.”

What’s your favorite thing about being an Occupational Therapist?

A: “This is hard! I love everything about Occupational Therapy. The simplicity of OT is what I’ve always loved and continue to love. In regards to working in the acute care setting my favorite thing is assisting someone perform tasks that they haven’t otherwise performed in days, sometimes weeks while being in the hospital. Seeing their satisfaction after performing something as simple as brushing their hair or their teeth is what it’s all about for me!”

So happy OT month to all those fabulous OTs out there, and I hope now when all you moms (or whoever else may be reading this) hear your child (or even yourself) may need OT, you have a little better idea of what that means! 

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Hannah Haro
Hannah Haro, PT, DPT is a physical therapist, wife to Daniel and mom to Mina (2018). She was born and raised in a small northern Michigan town, is bilingual, helps run a soccer clinic for kids with disabilities, is a Christian, and a partner at the Austin Stone Community Church. Though Hannah currently works as a PT in Bastrop, she has previously worked as a babysitter, downhill ski instructor, math teacher, barista, health coach, and pediatric PT. She likes to say she is in the business of rehabilitation: of people, as a PT; and of homes, as she and her husband are now on renovations for house #4 in as many years. She also loves coffee and anything chocolate, enjoying the green spaces of Austin, and a really good sci fi/fantasy novel while curled under a blanket.

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