By Ryan Clark
CHS Communications Director
April is Occupational Therapy month, and to properly get into the spirit, we’d like to profile two people who are affiliated with the profession here at UK.
To do so, we must first highlight a special program — the collaborative UK-EKU program in Rehabilitation Sciences, where UK, in cooperation with Eastern Kentucky, Murray State University, and Western Kentucky University, offers an interdisciplinary Rehabilitation and Health Sciences Doctoral Program with a mission to “fill a leadership role in addressing the rehabilitation needs of individuals in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and beyond through research, education and service.”
The Rehabilitation Sciences PhD Program is designed to produce academic leaders in rehabilitation sciences for the professions of occupational therapy, communication disorders, physical therapy, and athletic training. Graduates of the program will be prepared to conduct rehabilitation-related research, teach in higher education, direct discipline-specific educational programs, work in the rehabilitation services field and collaborate with other professions on various issues related to rehabilitation.
Meet Anne Fleischer, Ph.D., MPH, OT/L, CLT-LANA, associate professor who has twice had breast cancer, and now studies cancer survivorship from the standpoint of occupational therapy. She’s worked in the Rehabilitation Sciences PhD program for the past six years.
“I started looking at the experiences of breast cancer survivors getting back to doing what’s important to them in life,” Fleischer said. “Because there were always doctors asking questions, and giving people surveys to fill out. But no one ever really sat down and asked what was important.”
And even before virtual meetings were fashionable, she helped set up telehealth assessments for the survivors — something that grew exponentially over the past year.
“Telehealth was something we felt was going to grow, but we had no idea,” she said.
She’s also recently helped develop an online program where physical and occupational therapists assess cancer survivors, then develop individualized programs consisting of exercise and resuming the accomplishing of activities important to them.
“It's an eight-week program and we assess them each week and then incrementally increase their exercise and their participation in important activities,” Fleischer said. “We do this by monitoring their fatigue, perceived exertion, physical complaints and progress toward personal goals.”
Fleischer became interested in occupational therapy after her mom, who had rheumatoid arthritis, was seen by an occupational therapist after MCP joint replacements.
“I was impressed by the OT because she addressed some of my mom’s immediate needs, like applying her deodorant independently, through the use of adaptive equipment,” she said. “But that wasn’t all — she really took the time to know my mom, who was an ICU nurse. She had to go on disability due to her arthritis. She did crossword puzzles but really was depressed.”
Fleischer said the OT saw her mother as an intelligent woman who could teach.
“So, she encouraged my mom to become involved in the arthritis foundation,” Fleischer said. “Mom began by teaching self-help classes, then became a regional trainer in Missouri. Not only did this OT help my mom physically, but she helped her psychologically.”
Her mother regained a purpose, which influenced the whole family.
“After this experience, I wanted to work with others,” she said, “to help them find meaning in life.”
Meet Lisa Smurr Walters, OTR/L, CHT, an occupational therapist at UK HealthCare, an instructor in the Clinical Leadership and Management program, and a student in the Rehabilitation Sciences PhD program.
“My father broke his neck when I was 2 years old, so I grew up around rehabilitation my entire life,” she said. “That led to my life in health care, and occupational therapy. There’s such creativity and versatility within the field. I help (individuals) re-engage in tasks that are meaningful to them. These everyday things we take for granted. I love educating patients on these topics.”
An ROTC graduate with a degree in occupational therapy in 1999, Smurr Walters was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army, and she completed her clinical rotations at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. She then continued active military duty for 12 years, and was stationed at Walter Reed during 9-11, where she helped establish amputee rehabilitation in occupational therapy.
She left active duty in 2011 but continued her service in the military reserves and worked as a civilian occupational therapist at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. She retired from the Army in 2020 and came to UK for her PhD.
Now she lives in Lexington with her husband and two children, and she’s in her third semester of the PhD program. But what led her to UK in the first place?
“I came up here and visited and met with (RHB Director) Esther Dupont – Versteegden, PhD, and I just really liked the campus,” she said. “I felt like UK was just a good fit and the rehab sciences program really allows a lot of latitude in terms of developing your dissertation — like you don’t have to study under one person, you have the ability to kind of design your program the way you want.”
And the interdisciplinary opportunities were also attractive.
“Just having the ability to work with other professionals and understand how they can help a patient, and we all work together to the same goal,” she said. “That’s really powerful to do that in your academic program. I think it makes you more well-rounded in the end, because you appreciate what other disciplines bring to the table when it comes to rehabilitating patients, and then also you learn how you can capitalize on it.”
So Smurr Walters is a student and a teacher, as well as a mother with a full-time job.
“But think, now, I’m in the right spot,” she said. “I think this all happened for a reason, and now I’m here at UK, a Level I trauma center. I can teach. I can learn. The opportunity I’ve been presented with here is a dream.”