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University of Southern California
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USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
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Teresa

Teresa

Dancing In the Rain >

by Teresa

Fieldwork What are OS/OT?

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In the Vietnamese language, there is a phrase to offer your condolences to someone when a loved one passes — “chia buồn” — which roughly translates to, “I share in your sadness.” I’ve always found it poignant and have yet to find a phrase in English which can succinctly convey the same sentiment; that if the weight feels too much for one person to bear, please allow me to help you carry it.

This past summer, my grandpa passed away, peacefully and surrounded by loved ones after many years of suffering many strokes. Recounting his life, I realized I had known him as ill for more years of my life than I had not. Growing up, most of my interactions with him existed within the confines of a skilled nursing facility. This past summer, I was also completing my first Level II fieldwork experience in a skilled nursing facility.

During his celebration of life, my family went around the room sharing stories about grandpa. After my dad retired, he took upon the role as an informal caregiver to my grandpa and shared how much grandpa hated my dad’s visits to the nursing facility because he knew that meant it was time for a bath. My mind went, “OT!” but everyone took the light-hearted story for what it was and laughed, including myself. A few weeks later during fieldwork, I was notified that a family member wanted my patient to work on bathing during OT that day.

My patient did not want to work on bathing during OT that day.

They were protesting against the task, bargaining with me, and apologizing for how their disability was inconveniencing my work. I thought of my grandpa and how I would want a therapist to approach the situation if it was him. In places like skilled nursing facilities, there is so much loss of control. People have little to no control in their routine, what and when to eat, what medications they take, and how quickly (or slowly) their body is changing. So when a bright-eyed young OT student comes knocking on their door, asking if they want to take a bath, they say “no” — and you let them, because it returns just a tiny sliver of control to their life.

On several occasions, concerned family members entered the rehab gym with questions about their loved one’s progress during therapy. While others avoided eye contact so as not to get flagged down with questions, I’d approach them and provide updates as best I could. Afterwards, therapists would say to me, “You’re a student — you didn’t have to do that” to which I would reply, “I wanted to.” Just as much as I want to share in victories with patients and their families, I want to share in their sadness with them as well because it’s how I would want my own loved ones to be treated by providers.

Dr. Rafeedie often says how “occupational therapists teach people how to dance” but I’d like to add a stipulation - that sometimes, we teach people how to dance in the rain. That sometimes, in even the bleakest of places, you can teach people how to flip their outlook on life, flip the way they move and feel, and flip the way the system works because as occupational therapists, you’re well-equipped to. OTs possess the impeccable ability to take an unfortunate situation and turn it into something wonderful.

I lost my grandpa this summer yet somehow, I still saw him a lot. I saw him through my patients and the cheesy jokes they’d crack during our sessions. When they encouraged me to work hard in school and finish strong, I heard my grandpa cheering me on. On their families’ faces, I saw my own family’s faces — the looks of desperation, of encouragement, of sorrow, of hopefulness. To whoever is reading this with a heavy heart: I share in your sadness with you, whatever it may be. The rain is clearing and the sunshine is coming, I can feel it. Let’s dance.

Black and white photo of Teresa's grandpa’s side profile while seated and smiling

In loving memory of Thomas Dương Đức Thanh

Teresa

How Much Time Do You Have? >

by Teresa

Admissions What are OS/OT?

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The most interesting thing I’ve experienced this past year is that the more I learn about occupational therapy, the more difficult it is for me to explain it to others. At least not in a minute-long elevator spiel. Rereading my admissions essays when applying to OT school, my definition of “occupation” is packed into a box, tied neatly with a bow on top. However, if presented today with the question of, “Why did you choose to pursue occupational therapy?”, I would return with another question, “How much time do you have?” How do you even begin to explain why and how much you love, what you believe to be, the most incredible profession to ever exist? Well, here’s my attempt.

My parents arrived in America without two pennies to rub together but have always emphasized to me and my older siblings how our existence on Earth means nothing without generosity, a sense of genuine responsibility in the well-being of others, and dedication to helping people. From these values, I witnessed my oldest brother pursue a career in public service and marry my sister-in-law, who became a (USC-bred!) Doctor of Pharmacy in oncology. My older brother became a physician assistant (now, associate) specializing in urgent care and cardiology after five long years of coming home in the middle of the night while he worked as an EMT. My older sister (also USC-bred!) now organizes various clinical research trials to get FDA approval for experimental interventions. As proud as I was of their achievements, I was concurrently experiencing inner turmoil — what is going to be my contribution to the world? How am I going to help people?

When I was eight years old, my grandpa suffered his first stroke. For the next sixteen years until his passing this past summer, he would experience several more and became more medically complex with each one. My interactions with him didn’t resemble the nuclear grandpa character I saw in books and movies as a child. Instead, they occurred within the walls of nursing facilities, in the gym we constructed in his garage for his exercises, in the supermarket when I learned to read nutrition labels at an early age so I could hold him accountable for his diet.

In high school, I always spent too much time on arts and crafts. If a class project required a poster presentation or I was campaigning for a student council position, you could find me surrounded by markers and covered in glitter and paint all weekend. Then my brother would barge into my room and say, “Why are you wasting your time on this? Go do some math or something.” (For reference, math has always stressed me out. I blame times tables.) But I didn’t care. This was my happy place. I felt in control, the possibilities were limitless, and my mind was at peace.

In college, I worked at the UCLA Lab School as a teaching assistant for second-graders. My supervisor often assigned me to provide specialized attention to students with learning disorders and developmental disabilities, noting that I had a great deal of patience and a keen sense of empathy which allowed me to match students’ needs. On a fateful day in 2017 where time and circumstance met, a parent suggested the magic words “occupational therapy” onto my wanting ears and changed the trajectory of my life forever. I never believed that a profession like this existed — one that challenges areas of myself which require growth yet puts all the best parts of me to use. The part of me that my parents taught to help others, that practices compassion toward grandfathers and second-graders alike, and all while embedding creativity into the therapeutic process.