NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — April is National Occupational Therapy Month and the clinic here is highlighting the work it has accomplished in the five months since it opened. In just that small time period, the clinic’s patient care has more than doubled.
Capt. Debra Secrest, 99th Medical Group Occupational Therapy element chief, says OT is “therapy for the job of living, the occupation of life.”
“Our occupations are the things we do every day, not just work but self-care, leisure, relaxation and work roles. We help return function so that we can perform them in our roles,” the captain said.
The staff’s therapy is not just about the physical injuries but also the effect it has on the patient. “We focus on mind, body, heart, and spirit, so the whole person,” Secrest added.
When the clinic’s patients, who can be anyone but pediatric patients, are first referred, the staff does a series of tests to understand the extent of the injury, and then creates an individual plan that has the therapist’s and the patient’s goals in mind.
“Our goal really is to try to return to full function,” Secrest said. “Sometimes it has to be return to function although with some ongoing pain.”
Some of the injuries the clinic’s staff focuses on are to the wrist, elbow, hands, and forearms. They also give out adaptive equipment to make life easier during and after recovery, such as wrist splints and electronic organizers.
James Looman, a worker in the 57th Wing Advanced Programs and a military retiree, cut a tendon in his hand with a piece of glass and has been doing occupational therapy for about a month.
“The mobility was pretty hampering. It was pretty painful to move it,” he said about when he first started therapy.
Surgeons warned him that there was a possibility that his hand would not be the same, so the outcome has been surprising.
“I feel like it’s almost better now,” Looman said.
One of the unique aspects of this clinic is its therapy for those who have suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury.
“In the Air Force, we predominately see orthopedics out-patient,” said 1st Lt. Matilda Brunner, 99th MDG staff occupational therapist. “But at Nellis, we are the first OT clinic to bring back the TBI and cognitive rehab part to OT in the Air Force.”
The clinic staff is also working on expanding to mental health services as well.
“That’s really huge,” Secrest added because focus on these injuries dropped off, but new attention to this therapy is coming back.
“With our recent conflicts, there’s been greater attention to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and TBI … and starting a new service we want to make sure that we have a comprehensive service that meets all the needs of our [service members],” Secrest said.
Navy Personnel Specialist 1st Class Felix Quiñones Jr. suffered a severe TBI last year when he had a tumor removed from his brain. Part of his recovery included occupational therapy to help him gain back the abilities he had before his surgery such as memory, concentration and coordination skills. He has just finished six months of occupational therapy.
Quiñones says he has seen improvements in his life functions. “[It’s] a lot better, especially with organization. [That has] helped out a lot because before I would have stuff all over the place, and now I know to keep them in a central location.”
His memory has improved as well.
“There are some things that, if I don’t repeat it or write it down, I’ll forget. So that’s one of the things here they help me repeat it or try to do something or use the tools so I can keep track. They help a lot with that,” Quiñones said.
He was given an iPod touch as part of his long-term adaptive care to help remind him of appointments and organize his life better. It was donated as part of the Computer and Electronic Accommodation program, which the hospital participates in.
OT has affected his life in a positive way. “Just everything, even the staff is really good. If you need anything, they are willing to talk to you. So I’ve had a good experience,” Quiñones said.
One of the things that the clinic staff likes to focus on is how they use real life scenarios as part of their therapy, from opening locks and turning knobs to reading maps and concentrating on goals.
“We try to simulate real life activities as much as possible instead of just standard weights or flexibility exercises,” Secrest said.
The future is looking good for OT patients as the hospital makes plans to bring more space and equipment to the clinic in the coming years.
“There’s a big renovation project for the hospital, and in that renovation, we do have the kitchen that’s going to be given to us and [an] [activities of daily living] area,” Brunner said.
The kitchen and ADL area would help the staff address their patients’ needs to learn adaptive strategies for everyday things like cooking, dressing, and hygiene.
“Another thing too in that space renovation is a small conference room so we can do group treatment for TBI as well as potentially mental health groups. In those kinds of groups, we would address goal setting, anger management and stress management, which is really applicable to the PTSD population,” Secrest said.
The occupational therapy clinic is a place where patients come to bring back aspects of their lives that they’ve lost. In those moments of recovery, the therapists who help them find purpose in their work.
“The best part about being an occupational therapist is when you feel that you’ve made a real difference in somebody’s life,” Secrest said.
“I love it. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” Brunner added.
Occupational therapy had a booth in the hospital’s lobby April 18 offering general information on the clinic. For more information please contact their office at 653-3100.