What Is It Like To Be An Occupational Therapist In Your Twenties?


This was originally going to be four different Twenty Questions interviews.

I had been brainstorming what kind of girls I should feature on the blog next and for some reason my mind kept going to the healthcare sector. I couldn’t help but feel inspired by twenty-something’s working in such a selfless, underfunded, undervalued industry. Being in your twenties is one of very few decades in our lives where we have the freedom to be selfish, and yet these young women give up that right to serve the needs of others. That’s pretty incredible if you ask me.

On my quest to find twenty-something’s working in healthcare, I was put in touch with a lot of occupational therapists and I soon discovered that it’s one of the most misunderstood and overlooked professions. So I spoke with four incredible young women about the realities of being an OT in your twenties.

Kate, 23, Brisbane

I work for an Australian company that provides specialist OT/physiotherapy intervention in Geriatrics and Palliative Care. I studied for four years – which felt like four million – to get here, on top of which I was required to complete at least 1,000 hours of unpaid practical work. I love the complexity that working with elderly patients and their families bring, they frequently offer a depth of experience that I simply do not have at 23 years old. However, the challenges of working with this demographic is that when people are moved into residential aged care, or are being transferred to palliative care, there isn’t always room for improvement by the time I receive the referral.

Most days I’m the sole OT on site and those are usually the days when I arrive to a stack of referrals on my desk and every clinical nurse in the building wants to talk to me. My brain goes into overload and I feel overwhelmed but ironically those are also the best days because it makes me feel like my professional opinion is being valued.

In healthcare, there is always going to be a discrepancy between the required funding and the availability of funding. Australia’s ageing population is like no other; it is growing exponentially and slowly we are receiving the financial backing to support this demographic as best we can, but for now we have to work with what we’ve got.

Anna, 26, Auckland

I work for a wheelchair and seating service called Natural Mechanics in the private sector. I primarily work with clients who have had some sort of serious injury – a spinal injury, brain injury, amputation, or a medical misadventure resulting in paralysis or hemiplegia.

As an able-bodied person, we often take for granted the small things in life that we get to do every single day, and when I get the chance to help someone regain their independence or their ability to do an activity that is important to them it is one of the best feelings in the world.

Being an occupational therapist has expanded my understanding of people and helped me to see them for who they are, rather than the disability they have. Prior to working with ACC clients I was working at Wellington Hospital, and by moving from the public system to the private system I have seen the funding discrepancies first hand. It would seem that someone who has suffered a brain injury as a result of a car accident is entitled to a wider range of equipment and services than someone who has had a brain haemorrhage. That is hard to see and it doesn’t seem fair.

Beth, 22, Whakatane

I am currently in pediatrics which is a specialized area that is often hard to get into as there are not many pediatric roles available in New Zealand. In my role I work with children from 0 to 15 years of age with a range of developmental issues and I also work in the SCBU unit to assess premature babies with their general functioning, tone, and any sensory needs they have.

Our goal as an OT is to either restore or maintain function within the individual, and that function can be either mental or physical. I think what separates my job in pediatrics from other OT’s is that I assess children’s sensory difficulties and put sensory interventions in place according to their needs. For example, we often see autistic children who struggle to process what is going on around them. They might be overstimulated or underestimated and it is our job to insert interventions that will help them to regulate their immediate environment and allow them to be more active citizens within their community.

Unfortunately, not everything we do emits instant gratification so a lot of our work goes unnoticed by parents. Some parents simply don’t have the emotional energy to persevere with therapy or refuse to keep going when they don’t see immediate results. It’s a bit like eating a cupcake: you experience the end result – and it might seem small – but you have no idea how much work it took. Regardless, it is an absolute privilege to work in someones home, to be out in the community making a difference and seeing the impact I can have on a child’s life. Being so connected with my community through my work has really grounded me and reminded of how lucky I am to not face the hardships I have witnessed.

Ellise, 23, Whakatane

 I’m currently an “inpatient occupational therapist” which means I’m on a rotational programme, spending six months at a time in different areas including the surgical ward, intensive care and paediatrics. Prior to this programme I was working at the Wellington Regional Hospital within a rehabilitation setting where I worked with complex needs patients.

During my time as an OT I’ve found it really challenging to practice holistically, and to provide my patients with the best therapy I can while working within such strict time frames and with a lack of resources. But aside from this, the biggest challenge we face as occupational therapists is the lack of knowledge about our role and skill set, I find myself explaining how we differ from physiotherapists almost daily. I feel under-appreciated by most health professionals who simply don’t understand the value we add to multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary teams. A lot of people think we just prescribe adaptive equipment or get people back to work, but we do so much more.

Because of my passion to help people and the joy I find in making a difference to someone’s life no matter their age or diagnosis, I will continue to advocate for other occupational therapists and help to educate people on our vital role.

Header image by Holly Burgess for The Twenties Club