My encounter with an Occupational Therapist….

Towards the end of my stay on ICU, I was visited by an Occupational Therapist. My memories of ICU are quite vague but I specifically remember the green trousers! She explained that when I moved to the ward, a therapist would speak to me to assess what help I needed. She went onto explain that because I’d been in a coma and ICU quite a while (13 days in total), it was likely that I would need some help with learning how to do things. I didn’t understand what she meant, because she went on to say it was likely I would need help with learning how to do tasks such as brushing my hair, brushing my teeth and really basic tasks that we do everyday. Now; in my hallucinated Delirium state, I didn’t really understand what she was saying but I do vividly remember thinking ‘what on earth is she talking about, I’m fine: I can get up, I can walk, of course I can brush my teeth’! At that point I hadn’t left the bed so I hadn’t yet realised the extent of what I couldn’t do! The OT went and I remember thinking to myself ‘I don’t know what she’s talking about’!  I’m not sure if it was the same day but someone gave me my mobile phone. I remember trying to send a text and I couldn’t work out why my phone or my finger wouldn’t stay still. Every time I typed something, the words in my head came out as complete gobbledygook on the screen, completely misspelled and not making any sense at all. And it was then that I realised that actually, perhaps occupational therapist was right, that I had forgotten how to do things. 

The next realisation came when I was moved from the bed to a chair. I can’t say if the people were nurses or physios but I remember trying to sit up, being told to sit on the edge of the bed and I remember it being the most ridiculously difficult task – my body would just not work. My legs felt like jelly – they weren’t my legs, and I couldn’t stand up – I couldn’t do anything. I could barely hold my phone. I could barely scratch my nose and it was then that the realisation of how poorly I was and how poorly I had been started to hit home. 

When I arrived on the ward after discharge from ICU, the first 4/5 days were very busy. A person, whose green trousers seemed vaguely familiar, sat down beside me. The Occupational Therapist told me that she’d like to see how I performed certain actions – picking up a cup, holding cutlery…….but her plan changed when she discovered I was nil by mouth! She also discovered that I was very stubborn and independent: I didn’t need help, I was fine!! With the help of a frame and despite my utter humiliation of walking with a frame, she took me into the bathroom – we were going to brush my teeth!! By the time I’d walked to the bathroom I was exhausted! She gave me a seat and suddenly I felt very ‘old’ and vulnerable.  She asked me to hold a toothbrush…….and I dropped it! I’d lost all strength and couldn’t even hold the brush to my mouth! I was given a special adaption that made the brush handle bigger and this made it much easier, even though I barely had any strength to physically brush my teeth. As before in ICU, I was so embarrassed and scared by how little I could do, but the OT showed compassion and kindness towards me – she gave me encouragement, set small goals for me to achieve and over the next few days, I was learning new, old skills! The OT was happy with my progress and decided she didn’t need to see me anymore, which was disappointing as I found her job fascinating. As the days and weeks passed, I watched patients’ come and go, helped by physios and OT’s. I watched with interest how an OT assessed each patient, identifying strengths and weaknesses and how these could be overcome. I never realised how each, every day task that we do as humans, had so many steps – try writing a list of instructions for brushing your teeth and you’ll see what I mean! As I observed their work with other patients, I began to notice my own weaknesses, particularly in my hands. I’d lost dexterity and co-ordination so I asked my mum to teach me to knit! I knitted a couple of rows each day and gradually, things improved. The staff were impressed with my thinking but to me it was just a solution to a problem! 

Fast forward 12mths – during an appointment with my psychologist, I was asked if my experience had changed me? She explained that life changing experiences can lead to some people re-evaluating their lives, changing careers etc. I laughed when I told her that in ICU I remembered telling a nurse that I was going to retrain! My psychologist asked why I thought that was funny and I replied with ‘it’s a ridiculous idea; if I’m going to change career I would become an OT!…………!! We looked at each other; she paused for a second, looked at me and said very gently ‘it’s not ridiculous’…………..and the seed was set.

I know how it feels to not be able to do something; I understand the power of rehabilitation; I have lived experience; I have empathy and compassion. I can use my experience to help others reach their rehab goals……..I will become an Occupational Therapist.

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