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USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
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Leah

From Patient to Therapist: Rediscovering Occupational Therapy >

by Leah

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Fieldwork Living in LA What are OS/OT?

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I first learned about occupational therapy from my cousin’s girlfriend, who was an occupational therapist. I was ten years old, undergoing chemotherapy for liver cancer, and spent most of my time in hospitals and at home. Besides feeling fatigued and nauseous, I had lost many of my occupational identities, such as being a student, athlete, and friend. My cousin’s girlfriend began to visit my home to teach me how to paint, and we would talk about schoolwork and life. I looked forward to her visits, motivating me to get up from bed, and I received a lot of comfort in starting to see myself as an artist. Following treatment, this experience stuck with me as I became involved in an oncology summer camp that uses occupations to provide healing and respite to impacted families.

painting of orchid

Here is a painting I made during one of my informal OT sessions with my cousin’s girlfriend

Years later, I loved studying psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy during my undergraduate years. Due to my connection with cancer treatment, I continued to be drawn to health care positions and enjoyed my health science classes. Still, I had no idea what career I wanted to pursue.

Following college, I began working in permanent supportive housing. Because of my previous work in research, I thought I might want to be a clinical psychologist. I fell in love with working 1:1 with people and using occupations as a therapeutic means. Some activities I participated in with the residents included shared meal times, grocery shopping, laundry, resource seeking, dog watching, visiting the zoo, birthday parties, and bowling. My favorite part of the role was spending mornings in conversation and sitting in the lobby with residents. I became closest with the public health nurses in the building, and it continued to make me consider working in health care.

Because I was still pursuing clinical psychology, I began working as a research coordinator. While working at a Multiple Sclerosis clinic, I learned many things about myself, both good and bad. I loved working with the participants and often would talk with participants on the phone for far longer than necessary while completing assessments. I loved collaborating with an interdisciplinary team in the clinic when working with participants. I also learned that while researching was essential and exciting, I did not want to make research my career. I had a hard time in an office job and felt like jumping out of my seat every day.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I had a long conversation with my good friend from college who was currently at USC’s OT program. I shared all my doubts and hesitations about pursuing clinical psychology, and I realized my friend was describing my dream job. He discussed his love of occupational therapy’s holistic approach and the connections he had built during his fieldwork experiences. He then told me how he was about to begin his doctoral residency in an oncology hospital! I was overwhelmingly happy for him and a little jealous, so I decided to learn more about pursuing occupational therapy.

I then spoke with several occupational therapists over zoom/phone (hello pandemic!) about their roles as occupational therapists in hospitals, community mental health, and school settings. During every conversation, I felt myself light up and easily connect with the therapists about what I valued about working with people. Importantly, every therapist expressed satisfaction and pride in their work and the longevity in which they have enjoyed their job. I was drawn to the flexibility and scope of the profession. I reflected on my occupational identity and how vital my cousin’s girlfriend was to me during my medical treatment.

And now, I love my experience studying to be an occupational therapist. I spent this last summer in an inpatient acute adult setting. Next summer, I have my dream fieldwork, working in pediatric oncology at St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, TN!