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Occupational therapy: Changing lives

Tammy Bickmore, director of USM’s Master of Occupational Therapy program, says the program is growing every year.

The demand for occupational therapists continues to rise in Maine, with more than 1,500 OTs employed and projections for strong growth.

With its Master of Occupational Therapy program, the University of Southern Maine has been at the forefront of the profession’s development in Maine for the past 22 years. Supported by enthusiastic alumni and community partners, program leaders aim to stay at the forefront.

The program, housed at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn campus, started with about a dozen students in 1995 and now has more than 70 students enrolled. Director Tammy Bickmore is steadily growing the program to respond to the positive employment trends, but without sacrificing the high quality of the education and training.

Bickmore received the green light this year to expand enrollment to 40 students for the first-year cohort. Because of the competitive nature and popularity of the program, USM still must turn away nearly half of the applicants.

“The program is growing every year, and even with increased capacity, we still can’t keep up with the demand,” Bickmore said. “And that’s the demand from qualified applicants who want to pursue occupational therapy.”

“It’s a hot profession right now. Our graduates are working in every setting you can imagine, from pediatric hospitals to home health hospice agencies. And they are hired all over the country by some tremendous employers.”

Full-time students can earn their master’s degree in occupational therapy at USM in two and a half years, while part-time students can earn the degree in three and a half years. The program is one of only three in Maine (Husson and University of New England being the others) to be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE).

Bickmore is constantly striving to make sure the curriculum is challenging, current and collaborative with the community. USM students have a nearly 100 percent pass rate on the exams administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy.

“One thing I love about my job is that I can see the difference I can make professionally. I have the honor of seeing hundreds of students go into practice, and really make an impact on the entire profession,” Bickmore said. “They are out there on the front lines, doing such important work and pushing for improvements in the profession, as well.”

In its program overview, USM describes occupational therapy as a health and human services profession that recognizes humans as occupational beings.

“People define who they are by what they do, or by the occupations in which they engage. Occupational therapists use meaningful occupation or activities as intervention to help people of all ages maximize wellness and perform the skills they need to participate as fully in society as possible,” the description continues.

“OTs intervene with people who are experiencing varying degrees of activity impairment as a result of developmental, physical, psychological, cognitive or environmental dysfunction. As an OT, you will assist people in developing, compensating for, or regaining the skills necessary for participation in meaningful life roles and skills of self-care, work and leisure.”

Not including major metropolitan areas, southern Maine has one of the highest concentrations of occupational therapists in the nation, according to Bureau of Labor statistics. Statewide, the annual mean wage for OTs in 2016 was $65,000.

“Our graduates are working in school systems, pediatric clinics, hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care centers. They are also working in more non-traditional roles – looking at care management for older adults or working in organizations focusing on health and wellness – so our students leave USM with diverse learning experiences,” Bickmore said.

Kristina Sabasteanski, a U.S. Army veteran and two-time Olympian in biathlon, graduated from the program in 2012.

“When I was a student in the program, I was always wondering where I was going to fit in the profession. I couldn’t picture myself in a 40-hour week in the same environment. That just didn’t seem to fit my personality,” Sabasteanski said.

So instead of going to work for someone else, she created the VAST (Veterans Adaptive Sports & Training) Program at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. VAST offers free adaptive sports programming for veterans with physical disabilities, traumatic brain injury, and post-traumatic stress, or to veterans willing to volunteer.

The program gets veterans involved in activities such as archery, cross-country skiing, wheelchair basketball and cycling. Last year alone, VAST served more than 160 veterans with disabilities.

“Our goal is to improve the life-long health and well-being of veterans with disabilities, or really any veteran who wants to volunteer,” Sabasteanski said.

“We’ve had veterans that have come to us after attending one of our camps, or after some weekly sessions and say, ‘It’s like my entire life is shifting for the better — from one weekend. It’s crazy.’”

The principles of the VAST programming adhere to the principles of the OT framework by encompassing the roles, rituals and sense of camaraderie of fellow veterans. This results in unstructured therapy and lifelong results, Sabsteanski said. USM students play an integral role at VAST. They serve as volunteers and are willing learners who adapt to the environment, she said.

Brooke Lancaster, a 2016 graduate of the USM Master of Occupational Therapy program, said field experiences, including time spent at VAST, had a profound effect on her. Lancaster now works as an OT at Maine General Medical Center in Augusta.

“One of the days I was at the VAST program, a group of individuals from a local veterans’ home came to participate, and we were working with them to do archery,” Lancaster said.

“At the end of the activity, this older man turns and looks at me and my peer and he says, that was just great, thank you so much. I could have cried. It really resonated with everything they said to us in the program. It’s about engaging in the occupation and he was so grateful that we were able to help him do that.”

Fieldwork for students is essential for the development and success of future OTs, Bickmore said.

“We have level-one fieldwork which is happening simultaneously with coursework, it is very integrative, students are out in the community doing observation and hands-on experience,” she said. “And then toward the end of the program we have level-two fieldwork, which is the 12-week intensive with a supervisor who is an occupational therapist, and students really get to put all of that classroom knowledge into practice.”

By Trevor Maxwell