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Occupational Therapy Offers a Career of Passion, Growth and Service

by Lt. Kelsey Buelow, Occupational Therapist, White Earth Health Center, IHS Bemidji Area

We are entering into spring, which is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate occupational therapy. Occupational therapists work as a part of the interdisciplinary team across Indian Health Service sites. Occupational therapy is a science-driven, evidence-based profession to enable those of all ages toward improved participation in daily life activities.

The history of occupational therapy begins with an origin story dating back to World War I. OTs were considered “reconstruction aids” and engaged soldiers with PTSD in bedside craft-related activities and mental health treatment. Since then, the world of occupational therapy has flourished. Areas of practice include mental health, pediatrics, hand therapy and inpatient care. An OT’s education includes undergraduate and graduate degrees with multiple internships to develop proficient skills, and many continue to develop higher-level skills in specific areas of practice. OTs are expected to partake in continuing education given the daily research progression and the commitment to providing the best care possible.

OTs treat issues from injury and illness to disability. How is this accomplished? It begins with an assessment of patient history and their current skills to determine areas of concern and potential growth. OTs work with the patient to develop personalized goals based on their interests and needs. OTs pride themselves on viewing the person as a whole, including psychological, physical, emotional and social needs. These goals focus on functioning at the highest level and rebuilding independence.

After determining the patient’s goals, the therapist will develop a strategy for achievement with patient guidance and input. An OT could perform dry needling for a shoulder injury, develop a home program for a child, including self-soothing strategies, and complete a custom splint for proper healing from an injury – all in one day. Overall, the treatment is provided based on team guidance with input from the patient’s medical provider and other disciplines, research and assessment of patient responses. Input from the patients is gathered to determine if their needs are being met on a physical, emotional and psychological level.

Areas of practice that are not as well-known include wound care and lymphedema, which is swelling due to build-up of lymph fluid in the body. OTs can also assist with return-to-work activities by assessing skills needed to complete work tasks safely. OTs often work with children in areas such as sensory issues and feeding. OTs also assess patient environments to promote safety, including the placement of grab bars or rearrangement of furniture to decrease fall risk.

The American Occupational Therapy Association came out with its 2025 Vision, including work for the future of occupational therapy to become more accessible with culturally responsive and customized services. AOTA calls for collaboration with clients and within the health care systems to support effective use of evidence-based, client-centered and cost-effective strategies. Within the IHS, patients are willing to share their personal goals and cultural values, allowing for the development of trust and success within OT sessions and an opportunity for the use of the OT’s vision.

Occupational therapy is a rewarding career. It is a career that allows for hope, requires a passion for success and promotes personal development for both therapists and patients. Growth and engagement are built into the job, allowing for the formation of joy within a community. OTs are excited to be a part of your healing team whenever you are in need and will not hesitate to find cheer in your success.

Lt. Kelsey Buelow, Occupational Therapist, White Earth Health Center, IHS Bemidji Area

Lt. Kelsey Buelow is an occupational therapist at the IHS White Earth Health Center in Ogema, Minnesota. She has training in myofascial release, wounds, lymphedema, dry needling and a passion for orthopedics.