Elyse Newland couldn’t afford the tuition at a private school. She didn’t want to move too far away from her home and family in pursuit of low tuition.
But she was determined to pursue a doctorate in occupational therapy and UTC fit the bill.
Now she’s one of the Lucky 13, a group of risk takers, guinea pigs, leaders, and trailblazers. Graduating May 5, the class members are the first to earn a Doctorate of Occupational Therapy (OTD) at UTC.
“I’ll be the first in my family to have a doctorate,” Newland says.
“We’re very proud of them for being risk takers and becoming leaders,” said Susan McDonald, director of the OTD program.
Through the therapeutic use of everyday activities, occupational therapists help people throughout their lives accomplish the daily things they need and want to do.
When UTC’s program launched in 2013, there were only seven other entry-level OTD programs in the country. Even now, UTC is still one of only 16. McDonald explained that only seven of those are public universities, “so we feel like we’re a pretty good bargain.”
So the Lucky 13 began their OTD degrees before the program was accredited. That changed in May 2016 when accreditation came through.
“It takes a while to go through the accreditation process once you create a new program,” McDonald said, “but we are fully accredited now.”
Tiffani Sherlin, one of the graduating students, explained, “I knew [McDonald] from my undergraduate career at UTC and I knew that if she was confident that we were going to get accredited, then it was going to happen.”
While most brand-new OT programs have 24 students, the inaugural class in the doctorate program started with only 13. From Day One, the class and faculty have used the hashtag #lucky13 on social media.
“Very few knew each other to start, but they’ve become very close-knit. It was a small class, so they’ve really become family,” said McDonald.
No one in the class dropped out, so all 13 crossed the stage at commencement, becoming fully-fledged occupational therapists.
In their new careers, the Lucky 13 will work with clients, evaluating their home, school, or workplace to see what is needed to improve or maintain their quality of life.
They may recommend adaptive equipment and train clients in its use or they may even make the equipment themselves.
Occupational therapists also help children with disabilities participate fully in school, aid people with injuries in regaining skills, and provide support to older adults experiencing physical and cognitive changes.
For example, a hip injury may prevent the range of motion necessary to put on pants. Even though the patient may be undergoing surgeries, physical therapy, or just recovery, they still must figure out a way to put on pants. Occupational therapists help find alternative methods to navigate such everyday tasks.
“If you’ve had an injury or a disability, we help you live as independent as possible as you recover or to find your new normal when facing a lasting disability,” said McDonald.
Some of the UTC labs for OT, located in the Mapp Building, may not be what you would expect to see for a rehabilitation profession.
One lab has a sink, cabinets, a bathtub, a kitchenette, and a single bed with a wooden frame, not a hospital bed. The layout looks something like an open-concept apartment.
The setup allows OT students to help patients adapt to new ways of accomplishing everyday tasks. Heating food on the stove, for instance, is a relatively easy task for most, but turns into a more-difficult task for someone in a wheelchair.
On many stoves, the knobs are at the back of the cooktop. No problem for most people, but dangerous for someone whose arm is alarmingly close to the hot eyes when turning the stove off.
“You can get stoves with knobs in the front, but they’re more expensive and most people don’t have those in their homes,” McDonald said. “So we may have to help someone figure out, ‘How am I going to reach across the stove to turn it on and off in my wheelchair without burning my arm?”
Another OT lab has electrical drop cords hanging from the ceiling and attached to hot glue guns, sewing machines, and other tools the students can use to create assistive devices to suit a client’s particular needs.
“Maybe a child might need a special sling made from neoprene, which is soft and stretchy, but still strong enough to support small limbs,” McDonald said. “Or maybe someone needs a hand splint.
“When we pull out the sewing machine, some of them say, ‘Wow, I haven’t used one of these since Home Ec in middle school!’ McDonald said. “But ordering these kinds of specific items from a medical catalogue can be very expensive.”
With her OTD diploma in hand, Sherlin plans to take a job at Life Care Center of East Ridge, working with their neurorehabilitation unit, which deals with damage to the nervous system.
“OT lets me work closely with people, be creative, and also be in the medical field at the same time,” she explained. “I will be the first ‘Dr.’ in my family and that is definitely special to me.”
Taylor Campbell isn’t done learning yet and plans to obtain an advanced certification in stroke rehabilitation.
“My brother received OT services from ages 3-7 at an outpatient OT clinic,” she said. “I went with him every week and was able to experience first-hand the impact OT has not only on a person but also the family.
“I realized that I wanted to go into this occupation and have the ability to help others in impactful ways.”
Julia Schlicher has joined the team at Life Care Center of Morgan County in Knoxville.
“I certainly cannot say that I did this on my own. It took a village to get my class to this point,” she said. “It took the instructors, practitioners from the Chattanooga community, other staff from UTC, the students’ families, and — most of all — my classmates.”
Newland plans to work with the geriatric population in a skilled nursing facility and eventually work in home health care.
“I wanted a fulfilling career in which I had the opportunity to help others but also make a living. OT turned out to be so much more than that and I’m thankful I chose it,” she said.