Oaklawn's occupational therapists find joy in improving lives

In different ways over the years, Jennifer Wendt and Phil Smith found themselves inching closer toward discovering the same career – a career each would love because it helps improve lives.

Neither began on the path toward daily work in occupational therapy, but each has found personal fulfillment as a full-time professional with Oaklawn Hospital’s rehabilitation facilities.

“I’ve always wanted to be able to go into a profession where I would be able to help other people,” said Wendt, 27, of Marshall.

“It’s a rewarding job,” said Smith, 61, of Pennfield Township. “When you have somebody with whom you get really good results, it makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something.”

April is observed nationwide as Occupational Therapy Month, a time for people such as Wendt and Smith to be honored for their healing work.

Wendt’s interest in health care bloomed after the 2004 Marshall High School graduate joined Oaklawn’s dietary department. After a year there, Wendt became a technician for Oaklawn’s Psychological Services in 2008 and later worked in the hospital’s Emergency Room.

Along the way, Wendt recognized she might have a more personal impact in helping patients. She enrolled in a master’s degree program in occupational therapy at Western Michigan University.

“When I had a chance to read up about Western’s OT program, I fell in love with the idea of being able to help people more with their daily lives,” Wendt said.

Wendt graduated in late 2012 and in early March became the latest occupational therapist to join the Oaklawn Physical Rehabilitation Center at 13697 15-Mile Road in Marshall. There, she conducts evaluations and treatments chiefly with adult outpatients referred by area physicians.

“Most of the patients we see have had some kind of orthopedic injury or neurological problem that they’ve run into,” including stroke patients, Wendt said.

Wendt and the Marshall center’s staff help such patients focus on various activities and habits that will help enhance their daily life, ranging from dressing and grooming, showering, eating and other basic, everyday tasks that people often take for granted.

Smith accepted a buyout from Kellogg Co. after 23 years of factory employment, returned to school and took off in a brand-new direction.

“In the 1990s, my dad had a major stroke,” Smith said. “I spent a week with him in Big Rapids in inpatient rehab. I saw what occupational therapy was – and liked it.”

Therapists had helped Smith’s father regain his ability to do such daily tasks as dressing and caring for himself. That positive experience propelled Smith toward earning his bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy in 2000 from Saginaw Valley State University.

In 2001, Smith began part-time work with Oaklawn’s “Joint Camp.” Since 2002, he has been a full-time Oaklawn therapist, working in acute care and home health care.

Smith has been chosen to launch outpatient therapy services at Oaklawn Hospital’s Occupational Rehabilitation Center at 202 N. Main St. in Olivet, where he will work with referred clients several hours each week beginning this month.

Occupational therapists often deal with such conditions as fractures, injuries, and dysfunction of the hand, wrist and elbow, as well as such diagnoses as tendonitis, arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, sprains, various deformities, tendon repairs, nerve injuries and amputations.

Occupational Therapy Month, sponsored by the Bethesda, Md.-based American Occupational Therapy Association, highlights the work of occupational therapists, occupational therapy assistants and students in practice, education, research and science.

The American Occupational Therapy Association educates the public and advances the profession of occupational therapy by providing resources, setting standards including accreditations and serving as an advocate to improve health care. For more information, visit www.aota.org.

“I love it,” Wendt said in describing her work. “I couldn’t be happier.”