Meet Our New Associate Director of Care Services

Melissa Smith, MSOT, OTR/L, joined our team as Associate Director of Care Services this September. Before joining the ALS Association St. Louis Regional Chapter, Melissa spent the last 14 years working at Paraquad, most recently as the Manager of the Health and Wellness Center. She is an Occupational Therapist and has experience working with people with a variety of disabilities, including ALS. Here in her own words she shares her journey as well as what occupational therapy can mean to people with disabilities and caregivers.

By Melissa Smith

It was in high school that I learned firsthand about what occupational therapy was. My grandfather had been in and out of the hospital for many years with various medical conditions including: quadruple bypass heart surgery, stroke, colon cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. Witnessing his rehabilitation and the professionals that made that happen intrigued me. I researched more into how I could help others and found out about the profession of occupational therapy.

Occupational therapy is the only profession that helps people across the lifespan to do the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of daily activities, or occupations. Occupational therapy practitioners enable people of all ages to live life to its fullest by helping them promote health, and prevent—or live better with—injury, illness, or disability.

I attended McKendree University where I studied Biology and Psychology and received a Bachelor of Science degree. The University has a 3-2 program with Washington University School of Medicine Program in Occupational Therapy, and this is where I continued my education and received a Master of Science in Occupational Therapy degree. I was ready to take on the world and make it a better place.

My time at Washington University was great and I learned from the greatest of the great. Among those was Dr. David Gray, Associate Professor of Neurology and Occupational Therapy. Dr. Gray was a huge asset to the disability community, having had a spinal cord injury himself. His connections were impressive. These included the National Institutes of Health, and former work as the director of National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research appointed by President Ronald Reagan. Dr. Gray was also an advocate for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. St. Louis was so fortunate to have this visionary a part of the community. Dr. Gray was my mentor not only in graduate school, but in life. He instilled in his students the importance of participation for everyone and was a visionary in the disability community.

Dr. Gray saw my potential when I was unsure of myself as a new graduate. Partnering Washington University Program in Occupational Therapy with Paraquad Independent Living Center was a unique collaboration that he spearheaded. He gave me my first occupational therapy job and I was thrilled to continue working alongside my mentor and other wonderful OTs to bring research, advocacy, and policy change to the community.

Melissa in her role as an occupational therapist

I began my career as an occupational therapist. I used my specialized skill sets to analyze activities and adapt or modify the activities based on a person’s ability. Exercise has many benefits to a person, regardless of ability. Trying to exercise in a non-accessible gym is difficult given not only the physical barriers, but the attitudinal barriers. The Enabling Mobility Center allowed people with disabilities to exercise under the supervision of an OT. The participants set their goals and together we work towards achieving them.

Throughout the years the program as well as the need for a larger facility grew. Grant funding allowed the program to move forward with growth of staffing, equipment, and space. I took on the role as Manager of the Health and Wellness Center when the funding ended and Paraquad made the decision to continue providing this unmet need to the community. It was amazing to see the growth and potential of this program. Networking with others was so important to get the word out. So many families commented on the work we were doing and how it helped tremendously with their loved one. I could see and feel the love for this profession. I was helping others to participate in their physical, social, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual health.

School prepares you for so many topics; however, I quickly had to become self-sufficient on many other topics if I wanted to continue to do make a difference. I streamlined processes for operations, program development, outreach, accounting, fundraising, scheduling, managing staff and coordinating internships for students. Communication within my team was vital to orchestrate this program onward and upward.

In my core I believe that it is so important for people of all abilities to be included in life and have the same opportunities as everyone else. Quality of life is a measurement that can extend your life. When you have choice, importance and satisfaction in daily activities, you have greater quality of life.

Adjusting to disability is not an easy task. Through my profession I have assisted others adjust to the new normal while encouraging them to increase their quality of life. Eager to continue to grow and learn in my profession and skillset, I sought out my next opportunity.

I have been at the ALS Association a little over a month and have been so delighted with my decision to join this amazing organization. The very first day on the job was attending a staff retreat at the YMCA Trout Lodge. I was focused more on learning names than the games we were playing, but it was a great way to get to know my colleagues and develop communication skills.

My very first home visit was to a patient’s home to follow up about his wheelchair. I was thrilled to see that the OT and the wheelchair vendor that joined this visit were both people whom I know and have a past relationship with from my previous role. Lately I have been traveling with care service coordinators on home visits to check in, deliver and install equipment, and offer suggestions on future modifications. Sometimes we provide information about topics they may not be ready to hear about, but it is important that we have these difficult discussions.

“Quality of life is a measurement that can extend your life. When you have choice, importance and satisfaction in daily activities, you have greater quality of life.”

I have also had the opportunity to sit in and assist with two different ALS clinics. My healthcare background gives me an appreciation for the integrated team approach taken during clinic. Patients are navigated through each discipline of neurologist, nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, respiratory therapy, dietician, psychologist, social work, and Paralyzed Veterans of America (at the VA clinic only). Each profession takes assessment of current statuses and receives updates of progression of the disease. The clinic allows patients to gain access to all disciplines in one three-hour visit instead of making more than eight separate office visits.

I’ve heard from so many caregivers already that they are so very grateful for the services and resources the ALS Association provides. Recently, a spouse told me that at first, she wasn’t ready to look at the series of resource guides that were given to her by her care service coordinator. She put them up on a shelf while she wrapped her head around everything happening. She was later able to go to the shelf and read the materials that ended up being so helpful to her and her husband. The seed was planted that they had resources. She just had to be ready to receive them.

I am so fortunate to be invited into patient’s homes and into their lives. Every story is different. Every need is different. We have programs, equipment, and support that can make an impact and continue to help others maintain a high quality of life while dealing with whatever ALS throws their way.

For more information on our care services programs, please visit our website.

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