Monday Medical: Occupational therapy |

Monday Medical: Occupational therapy

Christine McKelvie

The 19-year-old college student struck by a drunken driver. The young toddler recently diagnosed with autism. The 47-year-old woman recovering from a devastating stroke. The 75-year-old man confined to a wheelchair.

What do these individuals have in common? They all face challenges that can turn the simplest everyday activities into seemingly impossible tasks. And they all can benefit from the professional skills of an occupational therapist.

As an occupational therapist at Yampa Valley Medical Center’s Doak Walker Care Center in Steamboat Springs, Angela Silvernail teaches and helps adults who have had strokes, head injuries, joint replacements and other health issues.

“We see people who are unable to do simple activities that we take for granted,” Silvernail said. “The goal of occupational therapists is to increase independence, function and safety for our patients. It is very rewarding to help people regain that ability.”

Silvernail is one of five occupational therapists working at Yampa Valley Medical Center and the Doak Walker Care Center. Beth Staunton works with young patients, including children who have autism, in YVMC’s Pediatric Therapy Services. She provides early intervention and helps children with special needs develop life skills.

Sue Winters specializes in hand therapy, treating patients at SportsMed. Jane Sloan provides home health care. Katie Roof helps people who have severe dementia, creating structure to reduce agitation.

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Occupational therapy sometimes is confused with physical therapy. Though OTs and physical therapists often team up to provide care, the two disciplines are quite different. Silvernail uses the example of a person who has had hip replacement surgery.

The physical therapist teaches leg exercises to strengthen muscles, increase range of motion and help the patient resume walking. The OT assesses the patient’s house prior to surgery to make sure it is accessible and safe. After surgery, an OT shows how to prevent hip dislocation while getting dressed or stepping in and out of the shower.

“We play an educational role in getting people to understand and deal with their restrictions so they can become as independent as possible,” Silvernail said. “We also teach people how to use equipment that makes self-care easier and improves quality of life.”

Imagine being partially paralyzed and having just one hand that functions. How would you cut your food, fasten a button, zip up a zipper or tie your shoes? Silvernail and other OTs provide adaptive equipment and training to help patients overcome these challenges.

“I think of the woman whose husband had to put her socks on for her every day for many years,” Silvernail said. “When she learned how to use a ‘sock aid’ and do this herself, she had such a feeling of empowerment.”

Silvernail also remembers the college student who suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was hit by a drunken driver. His team of therapists helped him relearn how to walk, talk and function to the best of his ability.

“He eventually moved back to Denver, but he came back to Steamboat every year to see us,” Silvernail said. “I love it when patients who have gotten rehab at the Doak Walker Care Center walk back in without an assistive device and give us big hugs. That’s really special.”

Silvernail feels that occupational therapy may be an underutilized service in Northwest Colorado.

“There are probably people who need occupational therapy and don’t know we are here,” she said.

OTs work in a variety of settings, including school districts, Northwest Colorado BOCES, adaptive ski clinics, Humble Ranch Education Center and in private practice. They are required to hold a national license, and Colorado licensure now is mandated, as well.

Silvernail is planning a Nov. 12 evening presentation at YVMC to educate OTs about the 2009 Occupational Therapy Practice Act. Laptops and paperwork will be available to assist with the licensure procedure.

“The new act goes one step further to protect patients,” Silvernail said. “We want all OTs in Northwest Colorado – even those who are not currently practicing – to understand and complete the new licensing process.”

Christine McKelvie is public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center.

If you go

Yampa Valley Medical Center will host an educational presentation and resource center for occupational therapists Nov. 12 from 5 to 7 p.m. in Conference Room 2. OTs are invited to learn about and complete new Colorado licensure requirements. A chili dinner will be served. For details, call Angela Silvernail at 870-1210.