Wednesday, 27 May 2020

cOnnecT with Katrina Tilley

Interview with CAOT-BC Outstanding OT of the Year Award winner Katrina Tilley

Why did you choose occupational therapy as a career?

Interestingly enough, my mother was an Occupational Therapist who completed training at the Occupational Therapy Centre and Training School in London, England in 1950. She immigrated to Calgary in 1953 and worked as an OT. Four children later, we all moved to settle in Lantzville on Vancouver Island. Although, my mother did not work during my childhood, she spent countless hours volunteering for many organizations. I recall her taking me with her regularly to visit people, who were requiring supports as they were living with disabilities. I became fascinated with meeting children with cerebral palsy which then inspired me to read books such as “Karen” and “Helen Keller” and to hear stories about people with spinal cord injuries. Tragically, my mother passed away when I was 16. A year later, I was presented with an opportunity to attend OT School abroad. My mother’s sister and husband were community-based doctors who were spearheading a ‘much-needed’ School of Occupational Therapy in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in northern England. I had no other plans, and needed to get far away from home, so off I went. The best career choice I could have made!

What is your favourite thing about CAOT-BC?

Early on in my career as an OT I volunteered with the BC Society of Occupational Therapists (BCSOT) and was on their executive team for a while. This was such an incredible way to meet other OTs throughout the province and to share our varied and interesting experiences. The Society was so active and supportive of our small but slowly growing group of BC OTs and they worked diligently to move us towards practicing as a registered profession. CAOT-BC is now our provincial voice and I am so impressed with what they do for all of us.

Where have you worked over your career?
My career began as a staff OT at Frenchay Hospital in Bristol, UK. It was at a large teaching hospital, funded by the National Health Service. OTs were at the bottom rung of the medical hierarchy, so it was far from a glamorous job. Within two years I was generally unhappy, bored, disliked my superiors and was ready for a career change. When an exciting opportunity to work at a ski resort in Switzerland fell through, I returned home to Canada. My first job as an OT in Vancouver was at the George Pearson Centre (formerly known as Pearson Hospital) which was a long-term care hospital for young adults. Within three years, I was in charge of the OT department. This was a pivotal time in my career, where I was able to strengthen and consolidate my skills as an occupational therapist. Assistive technology became a focus as I learned about wheelchairs, computers, ventilators, iron lungs, and many other assistive devices while working with individuals who had polio and high-level spinal cord injuries. It was here where I was able to work with six young men in their 20’s who were paralyzed from the neck down and on ventilators for respiratory support. They told me that their rehabilitation goals were to move out, live independently, get married, have children, and work. These seemed like impossible goals in 1982, but with the hard work of these men, community stakeholders and myself, they were able achieve these goals. They moved to what we fondly called “Creekview 202” which was a specially built shared-care apartment in False Creek, at the entrance to Granville Island. This was a one-of-kind project that caught worldwide attention. For years, I travelled to many conferences and centres, primarily in the US, sharing the successful stories of these young men who achieved many of their impossible dreams.
Soon after the young men moved out of Pearson Hospital, I obtained a position on the Spinal Cord Injury program at Shaughnessy Hospital, where Neil Squire was a patient. Neil had a C1/brainstem spinal cord injury with no ability to move, breath or to speak independently which left him sitting in his manual
wheelchair for hours on end. Neil’s cousin, Bill Cameron, was a robotics engineer who became determined to find ways to introduce technology to Neil in efforts to improve his life. He often said “if we are going to save lives, we need to make sure they are worth living”. Bill and some of his engineering students developed some of the first sip and puff Morse Code technology for computer use to enable Neil to communicate. As I watched what they were doing, it became clear that they needed an occupational therapist, with experience assisting individuals with spinal cord injuries, to guide them with their inventions. I knew that I couldn’t make the impact that I wanted while working full time, so I quit my job and approached Bill to hire me to consult with his team and Neil through the product
development. That was 36 years ago. In 1996, following the birth of my second child, I moved to part time consulting with the Neil Squire Society. At this time there were many opportunities for private practice OT services in BC so I also began a private practice. In my private practice, I continued to focus on working with individuals with spinal cord injuries doing case management, discharge planning, community integration and medical legal reports.

Where do you work now? What has been your most interesting job?
I have been back working full-time at the Neil Squire Society since 2012. I have always stated that I will leave when I am bored! That has not happened, in fact, I have had so many amazing professional opportunities and experiences during my employment with this non-profit organization that I have had no desire to leave. What is remarkable is that I have also been able to continue to provide occupational therapy services to several of the six men from Pearson Hospital who initially inspired me! In the past year alone, I have worked with two of these individuals to maintain their employment through the use of new assistive technology. It has been extraordinary to support these individuals who were once thought to be unsafe to leave Pearson Hospital due to their disabilities. Who would have thought that 35 years later, they would continue to live independently, in their own homes, with their spouses and children, fully engaged in work. During my initial 16 years with Neil Squire, I was the only occupational therapist, where I focused on enabling individuals with spinal cord injuries to transition from rehabilitation programs to independent living in the community and on determining how technology could be used to improve an individuals’ quality of life. Over time my occupational therapy role has transitioned into consultation services, case management services, and program development to meet the need of clients in the community. The work soon became too much for just me so I have been fortunate to bring on several occupational therapists who have the same professional interests and passion. We now have a staff of five OTs and two rehabilitation assistants.

What has surprised you most about working as an occupational therapist?
I began my training as an OT in 1976. At that time, there was quite a lot of focus on arts and crafts and using these activities as therapeutic tools. I learned pottery, basket weaving, print making, etc. We did not study theoretical models, research design or assistive technology. The training is completely different now but I am always amazed, when I work with newly hired OTs or OT students during their placement, that our basic problem solving approach is still much the same as what I learned way back in the 70’s.

What do you like about occupational therapy?
What I like about OT is that I feel I am doing something that makes a change – even it if it just with one person at a time. I am so amazed at the power of the human spirit to adapt to the challenges it is presented with. As an OT, I enjoy that I can assist an individual with the adaptation process. This is incredibly rewarding.

Nominations for the CAOT-BC Outstanding OT of the Year Award are currently being accepted until December 1, 2020.


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