Occupational therapy is a vital field that often goes unnoticed, yet it plays a pivotal role in helping individuals regain their independence, autonomy, and overall quality of life. To understand the impact occupational therapists have on the lives of their patients, we’re shining the spotlight on Petunia Lemekoana, a dedicated occupational therapist with years of experience. In this interview, we explore the diverse aspects of occupational therapy, the challenges and rewards that come with the profession, and the ways in which it continues to evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of patients. 

Introduction and Background

Alison: Tell us a bit about your background.

Petunia: I first studied Accounting before Occupational Therapy (OT). I went to UP (University of Pretoria) and did my community service at Weskoppies Hospital in Pretoria, then I went to work at a school. I don’t think I could work anywhere else as a therapist, the school has huge benefits for my family, and I love working with children and their families.

Alison: What made you decide to pursue a career as an occupational therapist?

Petunia: I first went into accounting, and after a term, I knew this was not for me. After some assessments, OT was recommended, and I went into it not knowing I’d love it as much as I did. It has been the perfect fit.

Alison: What is your favourite part about being an OT?

Petunia: I have always loved Paediatrics and Psychiatry, I’m blessed to be working with children, and I don’t see myself working anywhere else, maybe merging the two, but I am very happy where I am. I love that OT is so practical, it makes sense, and we help people to be independent, contributing members of society. We often work with other professionals, family members and the larger community as a whole to speak to the different roles that a person fulfils.

Alison: What is your least favourite part?

Petunia: The fact that so few people know and appreciate the value of our profession, even within the medical profession at times. The benefits and, unfortunately, the negative impacts, are seen after some time so it is easy for us to be overlooked when people do not see immediate results, which is very sad.

What is Occupational Therapy?

Alison: Can you provide an overview of what occupational therapy is and how it helps individuals?

Petunia: OT is a therapeutic approach that aims to provide and promote health through occupation. As an OT, we aim to assist people to be able to carry out their daily lives (tasks) in an independent manner and with as much ease as possible. We look at what a person can perform and how well that is happening, and we assist them to be able to do so better with the use of aids at times, improving their skills and educating them and their families. We also look at the roles of a person in terms of home, school, social, as well as within their communities. We aim to improve, maintain, or provide adaptations to assist different people in different roles to be able to perform at their best.

Alison: What inspired you to become an Occupational Therapist?

Petunia: Honestly, the way I got into OT was divine intervention. It was only when I was in it and learning what it is and how it all works that I began to fall in love with it and see just how perfect it was for me. God’s favour and provision got me into OT!

Alison: Could you describe a memorable success story from your career that highlights the impact of occupational therapy?

Petunia: I have had so many. The joy I got when a child was able to walk on a balance beam for the very first time in therapy. When a child realises that therapy sessions are helping him in class, he has joy and takes pride in himself. When a mother in the rural areas realises that it is possible, and she is able to play with her child who has special needs. When the community comes together and manages to work together on a project that will benefit them financially.

Alison: What are some common misconceptions about occupational therapy that you would like to clarify?

Petunia: We don’t just play with the children during therapy sessions, we use play as a tool to teach new skills and improve the lives of children. OT is not less important than the other therapies, each case is different, and some clients need one more than the other. All are valuable and have their role to play.

Working as an Occupational Therapist

Alison: What are the key skills and qualities for someone pursuing a career in occupational therapy?

Petunia: There are a few that come to mind. Being able to think out of the box, not being afraid to get your hands dirty and the ability to go into people’s personal spaces and places without judgement or prejudice. One must be able to multitask and keep up with the demands of a busy and full degree that is not available online or part-time since it demands so many practical skills and moving from one place to another. One must have passed well in Grade 12 to enter the degree. There is a nurturing aspect and a sensitivity that’s expected when working with the different types of patients and clients that we serve.

Alison: What role does occupational therapy play in enhancing the quality of life for individuals with disabilities or injuries?

Petunia: A huge role. We educate those who are involved in the home, school, and medical lives of the individuals. We first and most importantly, educate and equip the individual and provide them with emotional intervention as well. We provide assistive devices and refer them to other healthcare professionals where necessary. We educate on the use and care of assistive devices and have regular follow-up sessions with the patients and their families.

Alison: Can you discuss the collaboration between occupational therapists and other healthcare professionals in a comprehensive patient care plan?

Petunia: A lot of OTs work as part of a multi-disciplinary team that includes but is not limited to nurses, doctors, speech therapists, remedial therapists, physiotherapists, psychologists, social workers, teachers, parents, family members, many other specialists and the patient or child who is receiving the services. It is very important to work together and communicate well with all the stakeholders so that well-informed decisions can be made that will benefit the client. At our school, we have teachers working together with the therapists and meeting weekly to plan and discuss the different learners that we serve. We also have regular meetings and communication with parents. The learners themselves are engaged, and we explain to them what we are doing in therapy and what the benefits will be, and at times include them in some aspects of the goal-setting process. Continuous assessment and feedback are given, and we stay in touch with the parents at all times, also giving out home programmes where necessary.

Alison: How do you stay updated with the latest advancements and research in the field of occupational therapy?

Petunia: We are blessed to have access to a wide variety of courses that we attend, in person as well as online. Some are very expensive, and some are free, like those that are offered to us by the Department of Education. I work at a school that serves the district as a resource centre. We offer courses, and we also host other healthcare providers and educators who offer courses and training at our school.

Alison: What challenges do you often face in your role, and how do you overcome them?

Petunia: In my role as a school-based therapist, I work for the Department of Education, so there are times when the lines are blurred, and some roles that we perform are more educational and less therapeutic. Most are fine, but the issue is that it takes time away from therapy-specific roles that we could be performing.  

The Life of an Occupational Therapist

Alison: How has the field of occupational therapy evolved over the years?

Petunia: On the one end, there are more and more people who are beginning to know about our profession and appreciate it. We are also becoming advanced in the ways and the types of therapies that we are providing, as in the example of sensory integration that is growing and helping more and more children as therapists qualify in this speciality. We are also going to great lengths to stay up to date with technological advancements.

Alison: What do you envision for its future?

Petunia: More growth, more recognition and a greater appreciation and integration into communities at large. 

Alison: What advice do you have for individuals considering occupational therapy as a career path?

Petunia: Personally, I love OT, and I have loved working with a wide variety of people over the years. I would encourage the person considering OT to shadow or chat with different therapists working in the different fields of OT. It is a very practical field and would be enjoyed by anyone who way inclined.

Occupational therapists like Petunia are the unsung heroes who empower individuals to overcome challenges and achieve their goals. Their work reminds us that the human spirit is resilient and that with the right support, we can all find our path to a fulfilling, independent, and purposeful life. Let’s express our gratitude to occupational therapists everywhere for their unwavering dedication to helping individuals live life to the fullest.

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