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Life As An Occupational Therapist and Physical Therapist

by Lauren Elitzak, OTR/L, PT, DPT


In a recent conversation, I was asked that million-dollar question: What is Occupational Therapy? And How is it different than Physical Therapy?

If I had a dollar for every time, I was asked that question I wouldn’t have to work anymore! But is that what I want? Definitely not!

I love being an OT - it is an honor, really!

As OTs, we can work in so many amazing settings:

  • outpatient settings
  • schools
  • hospitals
  • homeless shelters
  • psych wards
  • the intimate setting of one’s home;
  • and so many other places!

And what makes OTs so unique? We do. No really, that’s the long and short of it - each one of us brings a whole new set of experiences, successes, hardships, and emotion to the table.

Another question I hear often is "What is my favorite occupational therapy term". A very intriguing question, indeed. Without pausing to think, I answered: “therapeutic use of self.”

This is one of my absolute favorite aspects of OT. This is what makes occupational therapists so unique. Therapeutic use of self-takes the concept of “holism” to a whole new level. It is the idea, the theory, that you can use your past and present life experiences to understand better, relate to, and help your patients achieve their goals and live out their daily experiences in a better, more comfortable, and more meaningful way.

I have been a part of the pediatrics world as both an OT and a PT for two years now.

Although we are always told not to “have favorites,” everyone knows it is inevitable, and we always do. When I look back at all of my “favorites” to assess patterns, I found that all of these favorite patients of mine challenged me and sadly tended to be the ones labeled as the “toughest cases,” the “most difficult,” the ones that “just won’t listen,” the ones that people are so willing to give up on or take a pass on.

So why did I enjoy them so much? What was it about them that made them my favorites?

As a child, I was not difficult, nor did I struggle in school. I mean, I had to study very hard to succeed, but I was not a “trouble maker” by any means. So what is it about these kids that made them my favorite? How did I seem to identify with them? Their commonality is that they needed a sense of belonging, a safe place, an encourager, someone who wouldn’t give up on them. Bingo! That’s it. These are words that I can identify with, too.

Subconsciously, my favorite students/clients have been those who are experiencing situations or hurdles that I can relate to and have personally overcome in my life as well, in some way or another.

This is how I can reach my students and to build a positive, trusting working relationship with them.

As a gymnast from the age of 3-18 (sans a three-year injury in the middle of it, which is what serendipitously led me to the field of PT! and from there on to OT!), being a gymnast became my identity. I did not realize the degree of significance that gymnastics had on my sense of self, my meaning and purpose in this world, my sense of belonging.

I am fortunate enough to have the most amazingly loving and supportive family, but as far as an internal sense of self-worth and confidence go, I have to say that it was an unrecognized struggle for me after I retired from gymnastics at the “old age” of 18, before going on to college. I went through some tough times with confidence in college and had no idea why. I remember thinking “My family is great; school is going well; I am enjoying what I’m studying, and I am working toward achieving my dreams; so what could be going wrong?”

It wasn’t until a year out of OT school that I started going to adult gymnastics classes with a colleague of mine and it hit me! I began to feel so much better again about myself, and I had better mental clarity and focus… not only was I working out, but I was giving my body back that much-needed proprioceptive and vestibular input from all that jumping and flipping!

On a day-to-day basis, I began to feel so much more grounded, and it was only then that I realized that this was what I had been missing all along. Considering what I knew about OT, self-regulation, and our complex sensory systems, I knew how crucial this was to my well-being.

I had become even more of a hugger during my college years - when I wasn't getting that proprioceptive input on a daily basis like I always had been when I was growing up at the gym (personal ah-hah moment!). You better believe that I shared this with my colleagues and my patients’ families! I immediately applied this to my work, and it gave it a whole new meaning. Not only that, but I felt so much more connected to everything that I did, my job felt more meaningful than it ever had before.

As an OT, it is our job to educate these students and their families on the life-long importance of practicing the skills that we are teaching them, be it self-regulation, social-emotional balances, sense of self and sense of worth, etc..

This is how I apply my therapeutic use of self, and I love it.

It has added a new depth of meaning to my work, and I know that my students can feel that. I can see that they do. It makes me seem (and feel) more genuine in all that I do.

Am I perfect? Heck no!

Do I try to have a smile on my face and be an active person in these kid’s lives every day? Absolutely! But while this is so important, it is neither what they need nor what they should see 100% of the time. They need to see and experience that it is okay to need a friend, that fear is rational, that changes can be scary and lesser preferred, and that every adult in their lives has or currently is going through a struggle that is building them up to a better place- if they allow it to.

I have found that being vulnerable and embracing it, may have the biggest, most meaningful, positive impact in their lives.

That is your job as a unique OT!

Your job is to tap into people’s lives and be the greatest possible positive influence you can be. But your role as an OT is to be able to use your clinical judgment to assess situations and know when and how to apply that therapeutic use of self that makes us so unique in our jobs. Own it, live it, and apply yourself every day!



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