It was my 12th-grade class trip that firmed up my decision to become an occupational therapist. An incident with a classmate with muscular difficulties that I was able to help showed me exactly what I wanted to become. I loved that occupational therapy (OT) is a profession that, while based on science, prides itself on thinking outside the box. Creativity is valued and “looking at things differently” is what we do best. This seemed like the perfect combination for me. And I was right. Twenty-eight years ago I got my master’s and never looked back. I have worked in nearly every possible environment: schools, hospitals, homecare and finally private practice. This has been more than I could have even hoped for and there has never been one day that I have not felt professionally challenged and intellectually stimulated.
But never, never, never in all of my years in this incredible field have I ever thought that I would need to rethink everything. Running a pediatric OT practice with my sister Aviva Lipner during the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed us to look at our therapy and make great changes. As a therapist working in a sensory gym, we have had to remove or close up many of our primary pieces of equipment. Our 4,000-ball ballpit has been closed up. Our fabric swings have been put away. Our crashmats removed. We have prepared supply bags for each and every child to use during their sessions. We cannot reuse or share so many of our textures, like kinetic sand, Play-Doh, putty or rice. And the cleaning! The time and amount of cleanser are difficult to comprehend. We are spending 15 minutes after each child to disinfect anything that the child has touched. We are all wearing masks. It’s a new type of therapist-client relationship.
And then there’s telehealth. Who ever thought this could work?! On Zoom, Google Meet, FaceTime, or whatever, we are having sessions virtually. What a crazy concept! Not only are we not hands-on but we are not even in the same room! Could it ever work?
And yet here we are, months into this, and the darndest thing is happening. Children are making progress. We worried about them working in masks; the complaints are few and far between. We worried about all of the equipment that we could not use, but we got creative and used what we had differently. We have done what OTs have done for over 100 years. We thought outside of the box. We have even thought outside of our own box! OTs around the world are networking via social media to support each other, brainstorm ideas and figure this out together.
The reality is that with the trauma of these past several months, many children need therapy more than ever. Children who need to run around during the day in school are often prevented from moving outside of their seats for several hours at a time. Some schools are all in-person, some are all virtual and some are using a hybrid method. This situation is so overwhelming for all of us. And for children who need therapy, any kind of therapy, this is even more for them. As OTs, in particular, we have to make sure that regardless of what is happening out there, we are able to provide a safe and nurturing environment for therapy. It has to be a place where children and their parents know the child can continue to progress and grow despite the restrictions. And OTs? Well, we do things differently. It’s in our DNA. It’s how we’re programmed. It’s what we do. And now, more than ever, life is forcing our creativity to help these amazing children realize their best potential.