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TMH Living Well: Occupational therapy often a solution after surgery, stroke

The Memorial Hospital

You likely understand physical therapy, but do you understand what occupational therapy is and how it’s used? It’s often the first step after surgery, stroke or other illnesses and injuries. The purpose of occupational therapy is to help people adjust to physical and cognitive changes so they can function at their maximum level of independence.

“Occupational therapists are concerned with the activities of daily living—the word occupational comes from how people occupy themselves throughout the day,” said Nancy Ellwood, occupational therapist with The Memorial Hospital Rehab Center.

Defining occupational therapy

It’s adjusting to life after an injury or loss of function. If you’ve ever broken a bone, had a surgery or experienced a stroke, you understand how you have to do things differently — even basic things like opening doors, getting in a car, and eating — at least for a while.

“Everything I do as an occupational therapist falls under daily living. We work on the basics first, like dressing yourself, feeding yourself, using the toilet or taking a bath or shower. Once those are mastered we move on to other daily living tasks, including meal preparation, laundry and getting around,” Ellwood said.

She sees people in the hospital, at TMH Rehab Center, and in their homes through home health services. She teaches family members how to assist their loved ones and goes into homes to check for safety issues and to make suggestions on how to best move in the space.

“A lot of my job is problem solving, simply figuring out what a person needs to do and helping them learn a new way, which may involve the use of adaptive equipment — like dressing sticks, sock aids and grab bars — to do it,” Ellwood said.

She’s got a big bag of tricks after 39 years as an occupational therapist and suggests ideas you’d never imagine. She talks about methods she uses to help stroke victims essentially retrain their brains and bodies through neuromuscular reeducation and new habits.

OT with stroke, surgery

Stroke manifests in many different ways. It can be physical, mental or visual. Ellwood tells how stroke can affect vision so that a person might see just half of what’s in front of them, and not really understand that the other half is missing. For example, when they sit down to eat they might just see half of their plate so she teaches them to get in the habit of turning the plate 360 degrees before every meal. Or some stroke patients can’t see things on one side, so she teaches them to do a wide scan of the area before walking around corners or going through doors. Stroke victims can also have problems talking or understanding what’s said, so she suggests tools to ease communication. She helps people adjust to physical and cognitive — such as traumatic brain injuries, dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease — losses as well.

After surgery a person might need to see her a few times for a variety of reasons, such as learning how to eat with their left hand instead of their right, or pick up objects without bending down. She explains how with traditional hip replacements you are not supposed to bend past a 90-degree angle, so she teaches patients how to put on their pants and socks without bending, among other things.

“It’s a very complex job but it’s really rewarding. It makes me happy every time I help someone be successful and regain independence,” Ellwood said.

Occupational therapy services at TMH

• Injury & post-surgery training

• Management strategies for progressive diseases: arthritis, Parkinson’s, MS

• Upper extremity & overuse injuries

• Hand therapy

• Coping with Alzheimer’s & dementia

• Brain injury & stroke recovery

• Neurological rehabilitation/cognitive & visual rehabilitation

• Home & community reintegration

• Pediatric disabilities

If you have occupational therapy needs or are planning a surgery and want to line up help afterwards, consider asking your doctor for a referral to an occupational therapist. To learn more about what TMH offers, call 970-824-5992.


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