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A Natural-Born Occupational Therapist

A Natural-Born Occupational Therapist

Sarah Pyle was born at Rush University Medical Center 28 years ago. She didn’t hesitate to return after figuring out what she was born to do.

Pyle, who is on pace to graduate with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy from Rush University in spring 2020, unexpectedly discovered her dream profession by exploring some of her interests, such as music and swimming. She recently talked about her road to Rush and how she sees her career playing out in the flexible occupational therapy field.

Tell us about your background.

Sarah Pyle: I grew up in River Forest, a suburb west of Chicago, and went to Oak Park and River Forest High School. After that I went to Beloit College in Wisconsin and completed a bachelor’s degree in health and society. It was an interesting major that allowed you to pick your own track. It had required classes like biology and public health courses, but I turned my focus more toward exploring psychology and various therapies like music, art and equine, and then looking at those therapies and their relationship to community health.

Along with my major, I also pursued classical music education. I studied music theory, played piano and sang in the choir. I was also on the swim team at Beloit.

Did your time as a swimmer and being mindful of body movement impact your decision to pursue occupational therapy?

SP: I would say so. First, my swim team experience led me to a job managing and teaching lessons at a youth swim program in Chicago, where I was working with a lot of young children and families, and some of my students had special needs.

Working with my students’ families was actually how I learned about occupational therapy. I observed some of my students making amazing progress with their swim strokes, following class rules and playing with peers, and I learned from their parents that they were receiving occupational therapy. So while we were in the pool, we would work together to reinforce what the child was doing in occupational therapy.

I received a lot of encouragement from parents, and that made me want to explore occupational therapy as a career.  A parent even brought me to her child’s OT sessions to see what it was all about. I realized that everything I had learned from coaching swimming about motor performance, emotional regulation and sensory processing, among other things, could also be applied to OT. It seemed like such a great fit, so I ran with it. 

Were there any other experiences that pushed you along the path to occupational therapy?

SP: I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted to do after finishing my bachelor’s degree. I took a job teaching kindergarten in Bangkok for six months, and I learned a lot about choosing appropriate activities based on ability, managing classroom behaviors and fostering social skills — all things that are really applicable to OT. Now as I'm exploring what I want to do clinically, I'm looking into being a school therapist to help support teachers and to help students develop relevant school skills.

After my time in Bangkok, I shadowed occupational therapists in various settings, from hand therapy clinics to public schools. I really appreciated that OT not only addressed the client's whole body and mind but also took context into account. We look at the social and physical environment and the demands of a patient’s daily activities. This can look so different among individuals. Every case is a really unique challenge, and I was really drawn to that. It's a really fascinating career that can take you in a lot of different directions.

Why did you choose Rush to reach your goal?

SP: Occupational therapy education at Rush has a really great reputation for preparing students extraordinarily well for clinical practice. Also, when I was applying it was the first year they started offering a doctoral program, which was something I really wanted to pursue. I wanted to be a part of a program that had a goal of advancing the field through research, advocacy and program development. And the clinical practicum experiences at Rush University Medical Center that the occupational therapy doctoral program offered meant that I would have access to hands-on clinical education right away.

And Rush has really been on my radar for a long time. I was actually born there!

Tell us about your experience at Rush so far.

SP: I have really thrived here as a student and a developing professional. I really enjoy how close I am with my classmates. They're a huge support system for me.

Then there are the relationships that I've developed with faculty. They really make themselves available to students, and I've received really effective mentorship. I know I can count on them and that they're really committed to my success.

I have also appreciated Rush’s commitment to community health, social justice and increasing access to health care. I know that approaching health care through this mindset will make me a more effective provider and member of my community.

I’m thrilled with my experience at Rush so far. I was really nervous to go back to school, but it has been an incredibly positive time of growth for me.

Are you currently working on any exciting projects?

SP: I've been part of a qualitative research team for a little over a year and a half with several of my classmates, as well as our research mentor, Dr. Molly Bathje, and several faculty from the College of Nursing. We are studying shared decision-making in health care among people with intellectual disability, their families and their providers. We have completed focus groups with these three groups and are working toward developing a model for shared decision-making for people with intellectual disability.

I'm also working on my doctoral capstone project. I'm going to be at a local therapeutic day school, Lawrence Hall. They provide trauma-informed supportive services to students with social and emotional needs that impact their education. They don't have a full-time occupational therapist on staff, so I’ll be working with a few of their teachers to develop and implement some classroom mental health promotion strategies.

What are your plans for after you graduate?

SP: Right now I'm leaning toward becoming a school occupational therapist. But I have a lot of different interests, so I'm excited to see where my career takes me.

I might try getting back into swimming and doing aquatic therapies as an OT, or lend my new OT skills to adaptive aquatics, which is when you make swimming environments and programming accessible to individuals with disabilities.

I do hope to continue doing some sort of research, whether that's related to aquatics, school therapy, or looking at health care for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

What advice would you give to someone considering a similar path?

SP: Don't hesitate to begin the process, especially if you're worried about how long it might take to complete the degree. If it's what you really want to do, there aren’t any shortcuts to getting there. Starting now will get you closer to what you want to do. It gets overwhelming to think that far in the future, but I'm incredibly grateful I did, and now I'm almost done.

Second, definitely lean on your support systems if you need to. Whether that be your family, a partner, or your friends and classmates. Having support from others has really made all the difference for me. There can be some stress that comes along with going back to school, but it's entirely worth it.

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