OT alum brings healing touch to special needs children
Colleen West, OT, ’02, grew up in Wilmington, Del., dreaming of becoming a dancer. What she didn’t know was that her career path would take her farther than she ever could have imagined.
She decided to pursue occupational therapy (OT) during her senior year of high school while providing care for a 9-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. West watched as the boy’s speech therapist, physical therapist, and occupational therapist worked with him, and found herself drawn to OT.
“I especially love working with people who have special needs and helping them move forward so they can believe in themselves and achieve goals that they didn’t think were possible,” she says.
West began her new career path by enrolling in an internship with the therapy department at a local hospital in Virginia during her undergraduate years at the University of Richmond. She also interned at the Richmond Cerebral Palsy Center, which was followed by working as a therapy technician in an acute rehab hospital.
These experiences validated her commitment to OT, and her desire to learn and help those in need led her to ATSU. She says that learning in an environment where you gain knowledge that is applicable to what you will see on a regular basis is what motivated her to discover everything she could about healthcare and to form important relationships that would change the course of her life.
Associate Professor Sue Hillman, M.S., M.A., ATC, PT, helped build a foundation for her knowledge and sparked her professional interests, and Associate Professor Rachel Diamant, M.S., OTR/L, B.C.P, gave her the foundation she needed to be successful in working with pediatrics. This connection led to her participation in the Manos de Ayuda clinic in Rocky Point, Mexico, which was her first glimpse of cross-cultural OT.
West’s passion to provide care to those less fortunate also traveled with her on three trips to Kenya. “The opportunity to work in a community where there is so much devastation and need made my heart thump,” she says.
In coordination with Food for the Hungry, whose goal is to end physical and spiritual hunger around the world, West assisted in facilitating a relief effort to guide the disadvantaged community toward self-sufficiency, including providing training workshops for teachers, parents, and church leaders. During her first trip, a variety of healthcare issues were in desperate need of attention, and West and others like her encouraged better hygiene routines and school-teacher training, provided instruction on improving the finances of the community’s small businesses, and helped develop a better means of obtaining food for young students.
West used her occupational therapy skills to create a better understanding of how to help disabled children who require additional care, and she worked with parents and teachers to instill knowledge on proper care and long-term treatment.
Along with a translator, she visited the children’s homes so that she could assess their specific disability and work with parents on how to better their children’s daily lives. She demonstrated treatment strategies and taught adults how to carry out range-of-motion, stretching, and strengthening exercises.
In addition, West and a fellow classmate, Sonya Lynn, OT, ’02, used a computer program to make handouts of the disabilities they encountered in Kenya. West then enlarged the pictures and simplified the text so there wasn’t a gap in communication while showing the family how to care for the particular disability.
Many others in the community shared her passion for bringing awareness to proper treatment. A Kenyan nun, Sister Lucy, taught fine motor skills to those requiring special care, showed visually impaired children how to weave, and involved these children in singing and dancing.
On her first trip to Africa in 2004, West worked with Geoffrey, an occupational therapist from Kenya. He worked with a pediatrics clinic connected to the Methodist Hospital in Maua and also traveled to nearby villages to follow up on patients he cared for while at the hospital. He and West helped each other diagnose specific concerns in these villages and worked with a variety of different ailments, including effects of malnourishment and malaria, cerebral palsy, injury care, brittle bone disease, and the use of prosthetics.
While working with Geoffrey, West shared her knowledge of occupational therapy while keeping her eyes open to what he was doing in Kenya. West was able to help him when they came across a patient who demonstrated signs of sensory defensiveness, and she showed Geoffrey various treatment techniques and discussed in greater detail how to continue to care for this type of illness.
In addition, her personal experience in working with hand clinics allowed her to teach him certain methods about treatment and care for patients who needed splints. On consecutive trips to Africa, she brought splinting supplies and printed materials, including her textbook from ATSU, to help Geoffrey continue working and treating people when she left.
In working together, West says, “We learned that though we had different native tongues, accents, and cultural phrases or slang, when it came to OT, we could speak the same language!” In Kenya, West learned about the lack of advocacy in these impoverished communities, and she saw Geoffrey as an inspiration as he promoted community awareness on the subject with an array of different techniques.
Another person who impacted West’s life was Catherine Kithinji, a special education teacher at the Mwithumwiro Primary School in the town of Meru. Whenever she visited the school, West and Catherine discussed classroom and student issues so that they could improve the quality of education. Most of the students did not have official diagnoses, but she witnessed symptoms of autism, cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, oral/motor speech issues, and a range of learning disabilities. West says Catherine’s eagerness to learn has led to better care for all children in the Special Education class, a greater understanding of the need for therapy, and an improved learning environment.
“One of the best parts of those days was that, for a day, all the other hundreds of kids in the school wished they could be in the Special Unit class,” she says.
“We end up taking home much more than we bring there,” she says. “Although we go to serve the people there, we are inevitably blessed, humbled, and encouraged in a profound way.”