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WM Spotlight: Karli Spence

by Rachel Johnson

There are so many wonderful and effective kinds of therapy available to those in need – physical therapy, art therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, family therapy, yoga therapy, conflict resolution therapy, play therapy, occupational therapy. But what distinguishes each field from the other, and how do you know if pursuing a career as a therapist is the right fit for you? My beautiful, talented, [insert any other affirmative adjective here because she’s that amazing] friend Karli Spence, is currently pursuing her calling as an occupational therapist. Join us as she sheds some light onto the world of occupational therapy and how she discovered that the practice itself was her true vocation.

Q: Karli Meg, what an honor it is to interview you! You are currently pursuing your Master’s in Occupational Therapy at the University of Southern California. What does occupational therapy mean, exactly, and what goal do you hope to achieve by earning this degree?

When I tell people that I’m becoming an occupational therapist they usually think that means I’ll be counseling people who are looking for jobs. It’s a good guess, but what we actually do is so different! An “occupation,” as defined by our profession, is any activity someone does that has meaning for them. This can be basically anything, from their hobby of painting to being able to dress themselves independently. What matters to each person is so unique. Through a variety of rehab techniques we help people of all ages who face many different challenges and we assist them as they get back to doing the things they love to do. As an occupational therapist I hope to help people live their lives to the fullest, however that may look to them.

Q: How does occupational therapy differ from traditional therapy?

Occupational therapy methods are often somewhat unconventional because every treatment session is based on what the client wants to accomplish and what they value. If a patient who has had a stroke, for example, really enjoys gardening, then we’ll incorporate a gardening activity into a treatment session where we’re also working on increasing the strength in their arms or helping them re-learn how to follow a sequence of steps to a task. Clients are more motivated to participate in therapy and they feel more fulfilled at the end of the session when the treatment has been designed specifically for them. I just love how occupational therapy is so client-centered.

Q: How did you decide you wanted to become an occupational therapist?

I think I always knew that I wanted to do something with my life that helped others. I explored the nonprofit sector, but I didn’t feel totally content there. I contemplated special education, but that just wasn’t the right fit for me either. Sometime during this journey, a friend actually suggested that I consider occupational therapy, which, at that point, was a field that was relatively unknown to me. It took about five minutes of reading about occupational therapy on Wikipedia until I knew it was a perfect fit for my life. It was a career that rewarded creativity, that required someone be flexible and adaptable, and was founded on the idea that personal connection can bring healing and meaning into someone’s life. I mean, really, what’s not to love?!

Q: We’ve discussed your fieldwork at length. Tell readers what role fieldwork plays in your graduate curriculum, and share the most meaningful experience you’ve had while working with patients.

Fieldwork is basically when you put everything you’ve learned in the classroom to the test. You have the opportunity to shadow an experienced therapist in a real life setting and learn everything they have to teach you. For my first semester in my Masters program, my fieldwork placement was at a children’s hospital. The entire experience was one of the most meaningful I’ve ever had, but one patient in particular sticks out in my mind. She was seven years old and had just had brain surgery in an attempt to treat a severe seizure disorder. The two of us immediately had a connection – we talked about her dog at home and she named her new stuffed animal “Karli.” One of my favorite therapy sessions was when we worked on coordinating movements with both sides of her body by playing a game of catch with velcro mitts. Getting to know this little girl and her family – knowing that I was in some small way helping them all to heal – was incredibly meaningful and powerful.

Q: How did past volunteer and internship experiences shape your desire to become an occupational therapist?

When I was an undergrad student at Pepperdine I had the opportunity to intern at a school for children with special needs. Never in my life had I ever been more challenged, but I’d also never felt more fulfilled. That was when I realized that God had created me to work closely with others and that He had instilled in me a desire, and possibly a gift, to help people overcome challenges. When I finally decided on occupational therapy, I spent some time volunteering at a pediatric occupational therapy clinic. At this clinic, we saw many children with physical and developmental disabilities and I felt the same way I had when I interned back in college – I had finally found my dream job.

Q: What is the most challenging thing about your graduate program and about the patients you serve?

I think the most challenging thing occupational therapy is that I’m constantly being asked to adapt to the needs of the people who come in for sessions with me. Every patient is so different – from me and from each other – but I have to somehow find a way to connect with them, build a relationship, and design therapy to meet their needs. Although it can be challenging, it’s also what makes occupational therapy so rewarding. My very favorite part of this work is getting to know each client and really understand what makes them who they are.

Q: What has God revealed to you about yourself throughout your journey to become an occupational therapist?

God has been revealing to me that I still have a lot to learn about loving others. It’s easy to love people in the fun times when things are going well, when you have an instant connection with someone, when everyone is happy. It’s a lot harder to love in the messy, ugly, hard times. It’s been a lesson God has been teaching me for a while, and although progress has been made, I still have a long way to go in showing the people around me His love.

Q: What encouragement can you give to women who would like to get into the occupational therapy field?

DO IT!!! In all honesty, I cannot recommend occupational therapy more highly. If you have any idea that this might be your dream job, talk to occupational therapists in the field – learn how they got into it and ask what they love about their work. Meeting with and getting to know occupational therapists before I even applied to schools made me feel so confident that I was making the right decision. As with anything, there will be some ups and downs along the way but knowing that you’re fulfilling your vocation will give you the drive to push through when things get tough.

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