Congratulations to our SPARC winners (Corinne McGownd) and runner-up (Colleen Fitzgerald)! The judges felt their awesome essays below demonstrated they were both very special people.

Corrine McGownd, SLP, Saint Louis University, Grad Date: 05/18/2018

My grandparents are in their late 80s and every day I am able to witness them show their love to each other as well as to others. Over the years, my grandparents have taught me compassion, putting others first, and being able to laugh even when things aren’t going my way. Everyone has something to teach no matter their age, cognition level, or disability. It is important to create an environment that provides people the ability to show their strengths while maintaining a positive attitude in order to increase their quality of life. When I am able to start practicing speech pathology, I plan on using my passion for helping others and learning to aid in increasing patient’s well-being in all aspects of their lives.

The most important thing I have learned from my academic coursework is to assess and treat patients with regards to their whole person and not to the disability. Speech therapists are treating the whole person during therapy, not just the disability; therefore, that is how assessment and treatment should be set up. I have seen this action while at my clinical practicum sites over the past year. I am currently at a specialty school for children on the autism spectrum. Although this is not a skilled nursing facility, I believe that these concepts can be transferred to any setting. At the school I am working in, the interdisciplinary care meetings about the each student are done on a regular basis. As a representative of speech therapy, I do not just discuss the student’s speech therapy goals within the meeting, but how the student is doing overall when I see him or her: transitions, overall attitudes, the conversations we have that don’t revolve around speech, and the generalization of what we are working on to other areas of the student’s schooling. The main goal of those meetings are to assess where the student is and how the team can best fit the needs of the student to improve his or her overall school experience.

Now translating this to a skilled nursing facility, I hope to be able to take an interdisciplinary approach by focusing on how the team can best increase the patient’s quality of life in all areas. Instead of simply working on word finding with the patient only in the context of their room, for example, speech therapy could focus on word finding in everyday activities: dining hall, getting dressed, communicating with nurses and family, or participating in desired activities. By working with other therapies and professionals, I will be able to assist the others on the team to provide best care for the patient that extends beyond the therapy room. Working on an interdisciplinary team also requires learning. I am eager to learn from my colleagues about best practice in their specialties and individualized patient care in regards to a specific patient in order to treat the whole person. Interdisciplinary care meetings would not be beneficial for the patient if there was no learning involved between the professionals. By learning from others, all professionals will be on the same page as well being able to provide the best care for the patient as possible.

In addition to learning from professionals, I envision myself learning from the patient themselves in order to contribute to their well-being. In order to provide patient centered care, it is important to learn what the patient wants to accomplish, what their abilities are, and what they are interested in. For example, my grandmother really enjoys playing golf. If I were to do speech and language therapy, I would want to learn from her about the difficulties she may be having when golfing in relation to her communication. By working on those things to increase her golf experience, whether that be socializing with the other players or being able to keep score, her quality of life in regards to her activities will increase because I spent the time to listen and learn from my patient. In addition to learning from others, I envision myself being a life-long learner. Through my schooling, I have always been curious and gone the extra step to understand the why behind doing something. By understanding why a therapy technique works and who it best works for, I would ultimately be increasing the patient’s therapy successes because I would be able to use evidence based practice when designing therapy plans.

I was fortunate to attend the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association annual convention this past November. While there I witnesses professionals of all levels of experience learning from others. They all had the same goal in mind: to learn and take back the new evidence to incorporate into their therapies with their patients. What a wonderful experience to witness! People from all over the country with the same passion! By keeping up with the research and the new therapies, I will be able to provide the most updated evidence based practice to my patients.

Learning is a passion of mine. Throughout my childhood, my grandfather taught me how to play basketball and the dedication it took to develop a skill. My grandmother taught me how to play cards and the patience it takes to play with others. Throughout my academic career, my professors have taught me how to look at the whole patient and how to critically assess evidence. Throughout my clinical placements, my supervisors have taught me how to use compassion with every patient. My patients have taught me how to really listen and look at the big picture. I hope that I can take all of these life lessons over the years and apply them while working with my patients. Every opportunity presents with a learning experience. Whether that opportunity involves working with a patient, sitting in an interdisciplinary care meeting, or independent learning about a specific treatment technique. Being able to recognize what that experience is teaching me is the first step. Then being able to take that experience and apply it to future experiences is the important next step. Without applying what is learned, then no one benefits. Ultimately, the end goal is to enhance the well-being of every patient. With that goal in mind, learning is a must in order to assist that patient in what they need to contribute to their quality of life. I want to make a difference in every patient I work with. In order to do that, I need to listen and learn from the team members and their expertise, the patient and their desires, and the others in my field and the ever growing knowledge base they present with.

Colleen Fitzgerald, OT, West Virginia University, Grad Date: 05/13/18


E.D. Nixon once wrote, “Your spark can become a flame and change everything.” As an occupational therapy student, I feel that this quote is important because as OT’s we enable our patients to light their spark in order to bring back meaning to their lives. Once we light that spark for our patients it opens many doors for them. This may give them the motivation to work towards their goals and get back to their normal lives. Throughout the therapy process we collaborate, using our knowledge and our patients needs and interests, to get them back to where they want to be in life.

For example, this past summer I was treating a patient during my fieldwork that was very down. She was not allowed to bear weight on her left leg because of a surgery that she just had. She was not motivated to get dressed in the morning or shower. I began to ask her about herself and what was important to her. She stated that she felt uncomfortable being in the therapy gym without makeup and did not feel like herself. I had her family bring in some of her makeup and scheduled her therapy in the morning. I would have her practice transferring to the sink and keeping weight on only her right leg as she applied her makeup. This was a more meaningful way of increasing her balance, strength, and endurance that she needed to complete her daily occupations. Incorporating something that she loved to do enabled her to recover.

Along with this experience, I had many more this past summer while on my first level II fieldwork at Health South Rehabilitation Hospital. I was able to see how I will be using my knowledge and education in the future to better patients and allow them to become independent. Really listening to patients and using your therapeutic use of self is a great way to get to know your patients when you first start to work with them. There were many cases that if I hadn’t taken my time to get to know the patient I would have never figured out what some of their barriers were to a safe and independent discharge. I feel that with my education and my upcoming fieldwork, that I will be able to understand patients and work with them to meet their goals in the future.

I feel that I was very fortunate to go away to good school, better my education, and get into a great OT program. These past few years, I have taken every opportunity that is placed in my path to improve upon myself and the care that I will be giving to my patients. Throughout my time as an OT student and my fieldwork experiences, I have learned that the most important thing is to be patient and create good rapport between you and your patients. Once you have a good relationship with the patient, they will trust you and open up about other troubles or barriers that may be preventing them from reaching their goals. When working with patients, I feel that the three most important traits to have in order to become close with them and really understand what is going on in their lives is compassion, empathy, and patience. This will allow for your interventions to be holistic; meaning the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of the person are all taken into consideration.

One specific setting that I recently found interest in is the mental health and homeless population. This is considered non-traditional OT, but still views each patient holistically. I was fortunate enough to have one of my level one fieldwork’s at a mental health/homeless drop in facility in West Virginia. This experience really opened my eyes to the stigma that individuals with a mental health illness face. Every day we would complete some sort of art activity or have a music group to relax and then have a discussion group. Getting to know these individuals and help them work toward or reach their goals was something that really interested me. During my time at the facility, I was able to work with many individuals and figure out what I could leave them with that would best help them. I was able to put together a portfolio to assist them in getting a job, including things such as how to make a resume, what to bring to an interview, mock interview questions, how to manage money once getting a job, etc.

I am glad that I am already beginning to see the impact that I have made on some of the patients that I have worked with. I realized this almost immediately at each of my fieldworks. Seeing such amazing results before I even graduated was a great feeling. Knowing that I am able to help and possibly change someone’s life is very rewarding. Every day my passion for OT is growing and allowing me to learning new things. Along with my love for working with patients, I am very interested in reading articles regarding OT practice. Every night I try to research some of the newest information for evidence based practice. I try to do this because no matter what setting I am in I am going to get thrown in situations. Even if I am not an expert at something, having some knowledge about the situation can help. Finding this information and using it with my patients will allow me to give them the best care possible. Getting in a habit of doing this will increase my knowledge and quality of care for my patients.

As I watch each patient that I work with grow, I always think back to where my passion for OT started. When my younger cousin was born she was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. She eventually began to receive OT and I would sit in on some of her sessions. I had to opportunity to watch how OT changed my cousin’s life and this was very inspiring. Her OT was extremely knowledgeable and humble throughout the entire process. I immediately aspired to be just like her. I began shadowing in multiple settings to see if I really did love OT. I continued to shadow for a few years and my love grew. I eventually got into WVU’s OT program and have continued to gain knowledge on how to help our patients. I can only hope that one day someone’s family has the same feelings towards me just like my family did for my cousin’s OT.