By Marcy SanchezSeptember 27, 2017
United States Army physicians, surgeons and primary care providers are experts in their fields, examining, diagnosing and treating Soldiers, their families and other eligible Department of Defense beneficiaries.
However, not all patients are fully functional after a major surgery or life-changing event on their own. It requires the expertise of Occupational Therapists (OTs) to guide patients through the recovery process in regaining skills and abilities during physical and cognitive changes.
Recently, 1st Lt. Chelsea Truax, an OT at William Beaumont Army Medical Center, was selected to participate in the prestigious U.S. Army Doctor of Science in Occupational Therapy Program at San Antonio, Texas. The Baylor University Graduate School program is designed to train and educate advanced practicing occupational therapists to maximize military readiness, healthy living and performance optimization through evidenced-based, client-centered patient care.
"It's a pretty unique degree combining a clinical doctorate and a research degree," said Capt. Amelia Wilson, chief, Department of Occupational Therapy, WBAMC. "It's respected to have a doctorate in our field; it shows her dedication and effort."
According to the American Occupational Therapy Association occupational therapists help patients participate in the things they want and need to do through everyday activities (occupations).
"I learned about OT through my great grandmother's treatment," said Truax. "I realized how much you can do with it."
In the Army, OTs are human performance experts whose main objective is to optimize Soldier performance and readiness both on and off the battlefield.
"We take a very holistic approach," said Truax. "If things are falling apart at home or wherever, then the rehab for that physical part isn't going to be the same unless (the entire patient) is going to be a part of recovery. We really look at the whole person and playing detective."
According to Truax, a 26-year-old native of York, Pennsylvania, she elected a career in medicine after considering a degree in elementary education during college. Her plan was to follow in her mother's footsteps teaching children, something she says she'll still like to do.
Truax's first exposure to the U.S. Army came as Army musicians paid a recruiting visit to her high school band, where she played clarinet and tenor saxophone. While Truax was attracted to military service and continuing her family's tradition of service, her goal was to finish college first.
After receiving her graduate degree in occupational therapy, Truax worked in both inpatient and outpatient settings before deciding to commission.
"I really wanted to work with Soldiers who had polytrauma (blast-related injuries) and be a part of (their recovery)," said Truax. "I wanted to have that Soldier experience as well (versus working in a civilian capacity). I'm not in a line unit but I could still have some of the same experiences."
As part of a Military Treatment Facility, OTs treat patients recovering from surgeries and/ or injuries. They also help adults regain skills as they experience physical and cognitive changes as they age. Most notably, OTs assist patients with upper extremity neuromuscular injuries or disorders that may affect voluntary movement of the arms, hands and fingers.
In a deployed environment, OTs take on a different role and focus on the unit's mental health status by evaluating and treating Soldiers suffering the effects of acute and chronic combat and operational stress.
"Anything anyone has to do from the time they get up in the morning to the time they go to sleep, to include their sleep, if there is any bit of that that is falling apart or they're not satisfied for any reason we hone in on those problems to try to get them back to where they were," said Truax. "We can create and adapt activities for people to still participate in everyday life so they still have that satisfaction."
Since World War I, OTs have had a role in the Army and are a part of the U.S. Army Medical Specialist Corps. Entry into the 18-month-long doctorate program is competitive and prepares Soldiers for an increased role in OT didactics across Army Medicine.
"(The program) is a really good place for younger officers to go and be mentored and be shown the way," said Wilson, native of Morristown, New Jersey, who speaks from experience as she also graduated from the program. "It will give her the discipline and an understanding of how Army OT works (across the organization)."
"I would love to teach," said Truax of her plans after the doctorate program. "I just love working with people. If you get to gain knowledge then the best thing to do is share it back."