Wesley College launches occupational therapy program

Instructor of Occupational Therapy Eileen Scanlon, center, examines a synthetic cadaver with students in Wesley College Occupational Therapy at Johnston Hall in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Instructor of Occupational Therapy Eileen Scanlon, center, examines a synthetic cadaver with students in Wesley College Occupational Therapy at Johnston Hall in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER –– When Wesley College’s fall semester began last Monday, plenty of students came ready to learn the concentrations that have been available at the college for years, but 21 students embarked on an educational journey brand new to the institution –– occupational therapy.

“There isn’t a Master’s in Occupational Therapy within a 60-mile radius of Dover despite there being a shortage of occupational therapists, especially in Kent and Sussex counties,” said Dr. Varleisha Gibbs. “Students who wanted to pursue a career in the field were forced to look out of state and in many cases didn’t return to the area to practice after graduation. Nothing was being done to reduce our shortage of occupational therapists.”

Delaware Tech is the only Delaware college to offer courses in occupational therapy and students of their program graduate with an associate’s degree.

Chair and Director of Wesley College Occupational Therapy Dr. Varleisha Gibbs in the Sensory Integration room at Wesley College Occupational Therapy at Johnston Hall in Dover.

Chair and Director of Wesley College Occupational Therapy Dr. Varleisha Gibbs in the Sensory Integration room at Wesley College Occupational Therapy at Johnston Hall in Dover.

The associate’s degree will allow the graduates to work for an occupational therapist, but jobs for them will not be bountiful if there aren’t occupational therapists to work for.

“Wesley decided to start the Master’s program to not only serve those who wanted to purse a career but those in the community that rely on occupational therapists for employment or services,” Dr. Gibbs said.

She was called upon about a year ago to begin planning the program alongside Wesley officials and now serves as Chair and Director of Graduate Programs in Occupational Therapy.

“It wasn’t an offer I was expecting but I was ecstatic because pursuing occupational therapy has actually been somewhat of a lifelong journey for me,” Dr. Gibbs said.

She always knew that she wanted to work in the medical field, especially after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at a young age and seeing her grandmother struggle with Type I diabetes.

“I had these people coming in and out of my life whether it was taking me to what at the time I thought was a play area in the hospital or helping me with my sloppy handwriting in school,” she said. “I didn’t realize until college that all those people were actually occupational therapists.”

Despite the misnomer of “occupational” therapy, the practice doesn’t focus on getting individuals into the workforce. Occupational therapy provides services which help individuals live their lives to the fullest regardless of physical and mental disabilities or limitations.

“We consider an occupation to be any activity that an individual considers meaningful and purposeful in their daily lives,” Dr. Gibbs said.

That can range from helping physically disabled kids improve their motor skills enough to play on a playground to teaching an adult with cerebral palsy to safely use a kitchen to prepare their own meals.

Dr. Gibbs graduated from the University of Delaware with a degree in psychology then Columbia University with a degree in Occupational Therapy before starting her career in rehabilitation working with people of all ages.

“I was just trying to get my feet wet at first, exploring all opportunities that the field offered, because there are so many possibilities, and eventually opened up my own practice in New Jersey,” she said. “In many fields you are pigeon-holed into a certain title, like someone would say I was a pediatric therapist because I liked to work with children but in reality, what I do applies to people throughout the lifespan.”

At her practice, her youngest patient was just three months old and the oldest was 107. The Wesley Master’s program offers the opportunity to learn about the full age range.

One of the classrooms doubles as a sensory integration room which is a setting where kids would receive occupational therapy.

It’s equipped with toys, balance balls, a trampoline, swing and rock wall. It may just seem like a room full of play things but each serves a more complex purpose.

“Many of the kids who need occupational therapy have low muscle tone so we can have them do activities that will improve their muscle strength,” Dr. Gibbs said. “We can have them practice different exercises on the swing to improve core strength or have them pull them selves along on a scooter to improve shoulder strength.”

The sensory integration room will be used for service learning –– a way for students to practice and improve their skills while helping kids in the area who do need occupational therapy services.

The services the students and teachers will provide can improve anything from mental focus to handwriting skills.

Ariana Rizzo, a psychology graduate from the University of Delaware is one of the 21 occupational therapy students and was drawn to the work she could do with kids.

“I’ve actually worked in pre-k for three years and I heard about this program from one of my friends on Facebook,” the Newark native said. “I researched it online and thought it was really interesting so I met with an advisor and decided to apply. It will be a good chance to expand what I already do. I’ll still be able to help kids but in a different setting.”

Wesley’s program also has a working kitchen for students to learn how to use contextual, environmental therapy.

“I graduated from Delaware State University with a degree in movement science and I started out as a CNA (certified nursing assistant),” said occupational therapy student Brandi Moore of Bear. “I’m into the rehabilitation process because I like to help people and I saw this as a good opportunity to further my knowledge and expand the way I help others.”

To prepare for careers in occupational therapy, students will be exposed to both hands-on classroom work and real-world experience.

After learning basic textbook anatomy, the students will use synthetic cadavers to explore human anatomy including muscle, bone, ligaments and tendons.

They will then do clinical rotations at a business and practices with certified occupational therapists.

“We’ve been really lucky to develop contracts with local businesses and facilities so our students can complete their rotations right here in town,” Dr. Gibbs said.

At their internships, they will be exposed to the team approach occupational therapists take when treating patients.

Occupational therapists typically work with physicians and patients to determine areas of improvement and identify specific goals.

“I’m looking forward to working with people in the community and helping them reach their personal goals,” said University of Delaware exercise science graduate Matt Montano of Dover. “I’m considering getting into hand therapy after I graduate from here and potentially getting certified in hand therapy.”

Wesley’s program is still in the accreditation process and Dr. Gibbs hopes to get accreditation sometime in 2017 –– coincidentally the centennial of the  founding of the American Occupational Therapy Association.

The Association was founded near the end of World War I as a new umbrella of health care workers known as reconstruction aids, aided the nearly 150,000 injured soldiers hospitalized in the United States.

It started out as women and nurses working to rehabilitate veterans but the use of the practice as more than a war-time effort was quickly realized. Occupational therapy was first recognized as a true medical profession in the early 1920s.

For more information about Wesley’s Master’s in Occupational Therapy program, visit wesley.edu/academics.

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