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Columbia VA Health Care System’s Occupational Therapists: Helping Veterans Regain Independence


April 15, 2022

Columbia , SC — Designated as Occupational Therapy (OT) Month, April is a time set aside to recognize the gift of healing that OTs provide to patients worldwide.

The Columbia VA Health Care System’s (CVAHCS) occupational therapists make it their goal to connect with their Veteran patients and help them regain independence in their everyday lives. 

Often a misunderstood section of health care, even among health care practitioners, OT is not vocational counseling, and it is not the same as physical therapy. Occupational therapy focuses on improving, rehabilitating, or maintaining a patient’s ability to perform everyday activities, through the therapeutic use of everyday activities to treat the physical, mental, developmental, and emotional ailments that impact a patient’s ability to perform day-to-day tasks.

“When I think of [OT] I think about daily living tasks, and getting people back to the independence of dressing, bathing, going to the bathroom, cooking, cleaning, [and participating in] hobbies,” said Sheri Davis-Armstrong, an OT with 15 years of experience, assigned to the Community Living Center and short-term rehab at CVAHCS. “OT [concentrates on] coordination, balance, coordination tasks, handwriting… There is a lot that goes in to [OT], depending on your specialty.”

A general sentiment among the OTs at CVAHCS is the deep pride that they have in the care they provide to their Veteran patients.

According to Marvin Reed, a Navy Veteran receiving OT at the CVAHCS, it’s that genuine care that can make the most significant difference in a patient’s treatment. “Sometimes all you need is someone who cares, and [the OTs] down here care a lot,” said Reed while laughing with the OT providing his treatment. 

At CVAHCS, OTs treat a wide-variety of ailments, including orthopedics, hand therapy, drivers’ rehabilitation, neuro-rehab, cancer-related lymphedema, acute care, traumatic brain injuries (TBI), strokes, multiple sclerosis, cerebral vascular accidents, carpal tunnel, and more.

“As OTs, we are broad and do so much, that it gives me a lot of variety in my treatment options,” said Adrienne McMillan, a CVAHCS OT with more than 30 years of experience, who specializes in treating TBIs and other neurological injuries. Specializing in neurological injuries, McMillan says that she often treats patients with more than cognitive or physical limitations. A common side-effect of TBIs is depression and other mental health disorders.

“With [TBIs] you can be dealing with a lot of problems. It’s not just the head injury that presents cognitive issues, you’re dealing with mental health issues, and you may be dealing with someone in pain, and all of those effect how you feel about yourself, how you feel about life, how you feel about other people.”

To help Veterans who are experiencing mental health issues caused by cognitive issues, McMillan played a key part in establishing an interdisciplinary group designed to help combat the negative thoughts and isolation that some of these Veterans may be experiencing.

“[In the group], We see them 10 weeks and work on different skills, but we also talk about life stuff. We talk about their spouses, their home life, how they feel, and we ask how you are managing all of this,” said Ms. McMillan. “We’re not only addressing their individual needs, we’re addressing their emotional needs and connecting them with other Veterans who also have the same [challenges], allowing them to also help and support each other.”

Veterans also have access to comprehensive mental heath services offered by the Mental Health Service at CVAHCS.

Aside from the genuine care a Veteran will receive from a CVAHCS occupational therapist, every OT at the Dorn VA Medical Center agrees that what really separates the care received at the VA from the private sector is the access to services and equipment that are often not covered by Medicare.

“[The VA] will go out and build a ramp for somebody’s house, that’s huge. When you’re talking about someone who is a widow and lives alone and we’ll modify their bathroom if they’re having problems,” said McMillan. “The equipment needs, you cannot underestimate how much that does for a person.”

What constitutes success in OT, can sometimes be difficult to physically measure, but the OTs at CVAHCS all agree that the ultimate sign of success is when a Veteran is happy and more confident in themselves.

“When you can connect with someone and help them on an emotional level, that is when you know your success as a therapist,” said McMillan.

If you or a loved one has experienced an injury or are suffering from an ailment that effects your ability to easily conduct day-to-day tasks, speak with your primary care provider about the benefits occupational therapy can provide.

“The equipment, the number of services that we can provide, the number of areas that we specialize in, [the VA is] a one-stop shop for Veterans,” said Amy Ray, a CVAHCS OT with 28 years of experience. “It’s our goal to give [Veterans] the independence that they want or didn’t even know that they could get back.”

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Wyatt Anthony, Public Affairs Specialist

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