In advance of the USC Chan Division’s 2015 White Coat Ceremony on Friday, Aug. 28, we’re profiling three of the newest Trojan Family members: incoming occupational therapy students. For our final installment, meet Austom Stamm MA ‘17.
BY JOHN HOBBS MA ’14
Born with mild cerebral palsy, Stamm, 25, has been seeing an occupational therapist since he was first diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 5 years old.
“Occupational therapy really changed my life,” Stamm says. “I would not have been able to succeed without it.”
At Friday’s 2015 White Coat Ceremony, Stamm’s success will be on full display as the young man, who once struggled with seemingly simple tasks, becomes one of the 205 USC Chan students to put on their white coats for the first time as occupational therapy students.
Finding His Own Way
It first became apparent that Stamm was different from other children after his grandmother began noticing that he had difficulty sitting up straight at the dinner table and struggling to use a fork. An MRI confirmed grandma’s suspicion that Stamm wasn’t just “gawky,” as his parents had believed. He had cerebral palsy.
While 80 percent of cerebral palsy cases in the United States are classified as hypertonic, characterized by spastic movements and extremely stiff muscles, Stamm was diagnosed with hypotonic cerebral palsy. This less prevalent type of cerebral palsy causes limp and weak muscles, which can give the individual a so-called “rag doll appearance.” They might have a tough time holding their head upright, standing and walking without assistance or maintaining proper posture.
As an elementary school kid, Stamm had trouble writing, using scissors and glueing together art projects. He also struggled (and still does) with some cognitive impairments caused by his cerebral palsy: difficulty remembering faces — he tries to remember people by their hairstyles or their voices — and even places — he relies on a GPS to navigate his way through the city, even to places he’s been many times before.
The condition made school tough for Stamm; he remembers being bullied in fourth grade after a teacher told the class they had to wait for Stamm, who had difficulty writing, to copy all the notes from the chalkboard before they could go to recess. When taking tests, Stamm could only get through half the questions in the allotted time, causing his grades to plummet. He says his mother was a fierce advocate for his education, putting him in a school for gifted students with learning disabilities and enlisting occupational and speech therapists to put her son on a better path.
With occupational therapy interventions, Stamm began adopting and adapting techniques and strategies to pass courses, including rapping his book reports (Fun fact: Mel Gibson, whose son went to school with Stamm, once complimented Stamm’s rapping skills at a parent’s day where Stamm “performed” his report.) Instead of making posters or dioramas for class, he made movies, casting his friends and family members and learning how to edit film using professional software by fifth grade.
When it came time to choose a career path, TV and film seemed to be a perfect fit. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Loyola Marymount in cinematography and film/video production in 2012 before going on to work for a production company for six months editing film trailers.
“Tricking people into seeing really bad movies wasn’t the most meaningful thing,” recalls Stamm, who began the process of soul searching for the ideal career.
Helping Others Find Their Way
Remembering a film he made as an undergrad about students with learning disabilities, Stamm began to realize he wanted a career where he could help others the way he had been helped. He contacted his childhood occupational therapist for advice and began shadowing occupational therapists in 2013 to get a better understanding of the profession.
“It was so inspiring to be in the room as these patients’ lives were being transformed,” Stamm says. “It reminded me of how far I’ve come and how I’d like to be able to give back.”
Stamm applied to several occupational therapy programs but chose USC Chan because he liked how welcoming it was of students with disabilities (he had the opportunity to speak with the late Dr. Neville-Jan and felt inspired by her story), how much scientific inquiry and discovery took place in the division, and, he says, it doesn’t hurt that USC Chan is the U.S. News & World Report’s top-ranked occupational therapy institution in the nation.
With the division’s annual White Coat Ceremony just one day away, Stamm credits his mother for her constant advocacy and for never giving up on him. He also feels really excited to be able to put on that white coat and take the professional oath of an occupational therapist.
“It’s like being at a fancy restaurant and the waiter pulls back the dome to reveal what’s for dinner,” he says. “I can’t wait to see even more from occupational therapy and help others the way I’ve been helped by occupational therapy.”
In advance of the USC Chan Division’s 2015 White Coat Ceremony on Friday, Aug. 28, we’re profiling three of the newest Trojan Family members: incoming occupational therapy students. Today, meet Aviril “Apple” Sepulveda OTD ‘16.
BY MIKE MCNULTY MA ’09, OTD ’10
It’s more than 7,000 miles, or an 18-hour airline flight, from Los Angeles to Cebu City, the second largest city in the Philippines. But in the heart and mind of Aviril Sepulveda, an incoming student in the USC Chan Division’s doctor of occupational therapy degree program, it’s infinitely closer.
Sepulveda, better known as “Apple” to her friends, was born, raised and educated in the Philippines.
She received her bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy from Velez College in Cebu City and came to the United States on a work visa in 2003. What she encountered when she arrived stateside opened her eyes to far greater potential — both for her career and for her own self.
“Being foreign-trained, occupational therapy [in the United States] was so different to me,” Sepulveda admits.
In the Philippines, her training seemed merely a first step on her path to an eventual medical degree. But in America, she discovered that occupational therapy wasn’t a stepping stone but a calling. “Occupational therapy was a great way to come to the U.S. for better opportunity, a better life,” she recalls.
During the dozen years since, Sepulveda has indeed grown to become a bona fide pediatric therapy specialist.
She has been a traveling therapist and works part-time at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where she provides outpatient services and has collaborated with pulmonology staff on research using VitalStim, a neuromuscular electrical stimulation modality, to treat dysphagia. She is also the director of rehabilitation at Totally Kids, a sub-acute facility in the San Fernando Valley, providing advanced care to medically fragile children often with complications such as tracheostomy tubes and mechanical ventilators. Thanks in part to her leadership, patient volume there has significantly grown.
Yet when Sepulveda celebrates her entrance into the USC Chan Division’s doctoral program at Friday’s White Coat Ceremony, her mind will most likely be focused on children living half a world away. That’s because her primary motivation to return to higher education is to improve the quality of life for Filipino children in her homeland.
Sepulveda certainly has her work cut out for her. In the mountainous rural areas outside of Cebu City especially, financial resources are constrained and healthcare infrastructure, access and education leaves much to be desired. As a result, occupational therapy is little appreciated and rarely delivered, which means children who might benefit from occupational therapy intervention develop greater degrees of otherwise avoidable disability.
But alongside her sister and USC alumna Bernardine “Berry” Sepulveda-Nikkel MA ’10, who lives in Cebu City and operates a private pediatric clinic there, Sepulveda has already begun turning the tide. “We are very grassroots, we have to be,” says Sepulveda.
Their efforts include regular outreach in remote villages where they coordinate, evaluate, consult with and educate local families. Sepulveda has also translated an evaluation questionnaire into Cebuano, a regional dialect related to similar Filipino languages, and also trains day care workers.
Sepulveda hopes that she will be able to successfully apply the education, skills and network that she will develop as a USC Chan doctoral student to service delivery models that can make an immediate and long-lasting impact back in the Philippines.
“My motivation is to further my education and background in order to prevent disability in the Philippines,” Sepulveda says, “by bringing knowledge, early awareness and intervention.”
In advance of the USC Chan Division’s 2015 White Coat Ceremony on Friday, Aug. 28, we’re profiling three of the newest Trojan Family members: incoming occupational therapy students. Today, meet David Matharu ‘95, MA ‘17.
BY YASMINE PEZESHKPOUR MCM ’17
His parents owned seven residential facilities in Los Angeles for adults with developmental disabilities.
His brother Yogi Matharu ’95, DPT ’98 is a practicing physical therapist, who works as an assistant professor in the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy and is the director of that division’s faculty practice.
So when it came time for Matharu to start his own career more than 20 years ago, he decided to go into the family business by establishing Matharu Assisted Living Inc., an organization that runs single-family residences for adults with developmental disabilities. Today, there are four Matharu Assisted Living locations — two in Lawndale and two in Gardena — which provide housing to 24 individuals total.
In 2006, Matharu established Independent Horizons, a day program for adults with development disabilities. The program has since grown into two locations in Carson and Long Beach, serving 54 individuals each.
The power of occupational therapy
It was while working at these various programs that Matharu witnessed firsthand the impact that occupational therapy can make on the life of someone with a developmental disability.
“Observing our occupational therapists while they worked with our clients and realizing the impact that they make on the lives of these individuals is truly remarkable,” Matharu says.
It was this experience coupled with an inspiring orientation hosted by the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy that prompted the 44-year-old business owner to go back to school for his occupational therapy degree.
“I have a successful business working with adults with developmental disabilities,” he says. “Although I love what I do, I wanted to work hands-on, in a clinical capacity, with my clients.” He also says he’d like to expand his horizons by working with other populations as well.
Back to school
As a self-described “business owner, property manager, administrator and human resource department all rolled into one,” Matharu plans to entrust his business with his partners and colleagues while he embarks upon full-time education.
“I am lucky to have a successful business that my wife Anita is managing while I complete my degree,” he explains. “Over the years, we have built a strong team of administrators and consultants to oversee to the day-to-day operation of the business. This made the decision to return to school full time easy.”
With all that he has achieved, Matharu hopes to apply what he has learned in his business to his studies.
“Twenty years of working in the real world and dealing with people has given me real-life experiences that are invaluable and will serve to make me a better therapist,” he says. “Had I gone to OT school immediately upon completion of my undergraduate degree, I would not be able to bring 20 years of experience into the classroom.”
Matharu will be one of 205 students donning their white coat and swearing their professional oaths for the first time on Aug. 28 as part of USC Chan’s annual White Coat Ceremony.
“The White Coat ceremony is a new beginning, a first step,” Matharu says. “I look forward to wearing my white coat for the first time and assuming this awesome responsibility, as well as everything else that it entails.”
June is National Safety Month, an annual observance designed to educate the public about habits, tools and behaviors that can limit otherwise preventable injuries and deaths.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, one out of every three older adults aged 65 or older falls each year. Among this population, falls are the leading cause of both fatal and non-fatal injuries, the direct medical costs of which are estimated at $34 billion annually.
The good news is that, according to gerontologist and health services researcher Natalie Leland at the USC Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy and the USC Davis School of Gerontology, a few easy fixes can drastically increase in-home safety.
The research focuses on, among other topics, falls incurred among nursing home patients. Leland recently received a research grant from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality to better define quality measures for hip fracture care in order to evaluate — and eventually improve — the quality of post-acute care rehabilitation.
Leland offers her five simple tips to improve safety in and around home environments:
1) Keep traffic paths clear of potential hazards such as furniture, slippery rugs, household clutter and electric wires or cords.
2) Stay active — strength, coordination and balance are important abilities that can help prevent falls.
3) Keep adequately hydrated by consuming fluids, especially during the summer months, because dehydration can lead to cognitive changes, such as confusion, which increases the risk of falling.
4) Wear well-fitting and maintained footwear, which are safer than shoes with worn soles or treads or which do not fit properly.
5) Ensure smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector batteries are replaced on a regular basis so that loved ones don’t have to climb ladders to replace them and to provide adequate notice in case of emergency.
Standing at the starting line of the world’s most notorious obstacle course, USC Chan alumna Karly Streisfeld MA ’05 took a deep breath and mentally visualized her route through the challenges looming ahead.
As a competitor on the June 22 episode of the NBC competition television series American Ninja Warrior, Streisfeld would need to muster all her strength, agility and endurance to successfully navigate ominous obstacles, including a series of suspended tire swings and a 14-foot-tall concave wall.
Streisfeld, to her advantage, knows what it takes to optimize performance of the human body. She is an occupational therapist at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, the nation’s third-largest public hospital where she specializes in physical rehabilitation of patients with trauma-related conditions such as stroke, brain and spinal cord injuries.
When she isn’t busy improving her patients’ quality of life, the lifelong athlete can often be found building her own body’s physical capacities at her hometown gym or with area fitness groups.
“I tend to think very biomechanically, like physical therapists do,” Streisfeld says, “but I became an occupational therapist because of our more holistic perspective on health and wellness, and I’ve realized more and more how I can really integrate both of those approaches into my rehab practice.”
The times when she is neither at work nor working out, Streisfeld volunteers with Haiti Rehab Project, a non-profit organization that provides medical care, supplies, equipment and education to disadvantaged and disabled populations in the poverty-stricken country.
Streisfeld first traveled to the island nation in the aftermath of the country’s devastating 2010 7.0-magnitude earthquake, and has since made several more return trips to construct low-cost medical devices, establish a clinic and train local partners to provide community-based rehabilitative therapy in remote rural areas where care is otherwise scarce. She also witnessed both the inflow of international aid following the earthquake and, more recently, its outflow.
“There is still a lot of work to be done in Haiti,” Streisfeld says. “People are still living in emergency tents that were only meant to be temporary shelters. So much aid has been pulled out. The world needs to know that the rebuilding job isn’t complete.”
So it should come as no surprise that, when a friend suggested the avid fitness enthusiast audition for American Ninja Warrior earlier this year, Streisfeld immediately knew she could raise visibility among a national television audience to a cause greater than herself.
After submitting an audition video, show producers invited her to attempt the qualifying course in Orlando, Fla., in May. Cheering along the course sidelines were two of her Haitian partners flown in especially for the taping, one of whom was among the first above-knee amputees from the earthquake to receive a prosthetic limb. Thanks in part to Streisfeld’s guidance, he now crafts prosthetic limbs for his fellow Haitian amputees.
With supporters rooting her on, Streisfeld took off down the course and easily flew through the first obstacle. But she soon met her match in the rolling log—a synthetic “log” to which competitors desperately cling and spin upon while rotating down an decline—as she was cast off into the disqualifying water pool below.
But Streisfeld, an eternal optimist, knows her cause won’t be slowed by her defeat on the course. She expects the awareness and fundraising she began prior to her television appearance to only continue gaining momentum.
“I wanted to use American Ninja Warrior as a platform for the vital work being done by Haiti Rehab Project,” Streisfeld says. “That’s what I’ve done and what I will continue to do, for a country and people who need it most.”