Healing from Occupation: Rediscovering the Heart of My Craft

April is national occupational therapy month. As an occupational therapist, I help my clients find new ways to access and participate in occupations – the acts of their daily lives. Helping individuals, groups, and communities fully embrace their life activities, from combing hair to collective bargaining, is at the heart of what occupational therapists bring to the world.

I celebrate this month not only because I am proud of my profession, my colleagues, and the first-ever cohort of Occupational Therapy Doctorate (OTD) students here at Duke. I also celebrate the profound gift of healing that continues to emerge from the meaningful occupations of my life amid the losses in childbirth from Covid-19.

What exactly is occupational therapy? An often misunderstood profession – “Do you help people find jobs? “You’re just a special type of physical therapist, aren’t you?” – the field officially emerged in the United States in 1917. Early practitioners of occupational therapy, informed by the Arts and Crafts movement and settlement houses like Hull House, focused on supporting, promoting and encouraging optimization of the ways in which humans to occupy their time.

Occupational therapists champion human actions as a distinctive mechanism of health. And these days, you’ll find occupational therapy professionals at work in a variety of settings: from hospitals to prisons, places that provide mental health care to home care, from schools to senior centers.

William Rush Dunton Jr., one of the founders of the field, expressed the main concern of occupational therapists through a mighty creed of 1919:

This occupation is as necessary to life as food and drink. That every human being should have both physical and mental occupation. May all have occupations that please them… May sick minds, sick bodies, sick souls be healed by occupation.

Five months ago I had a complicated miscarriage. While I spent several weeks at home recovering from surgery, away from my job as an occupational therapist at Duke’s Lenox Baker Children’s Hospital and away from the classrooms where I teach OTD students from medical school, I quickly became a grief mate. My soul, as well as my body and mind, felt extremely sad. I found myself lying for hours on my old gray sofa, watching Netflix.

But something started to change after a few unexpected acts of care. My priest showed up at my door and handed me two “trash” novels that we were to read together. My OTD students left posters on my porch covered in paper hearts with handwritten wishes, poems and prayers. One of my best friends called me every day and we spent hours talking about everything under the sun, including our shared experiences of pregnancy loss.

Following my miscarriage, these acts of healing helped me begin to move within and through my grief. They brought me back to some of the fundamental pursuits of my life: reading, teaching, and connecting with others. My priest, my students, and my friend gently beckoned me to reinhabit the doings that had filled my life with vibrancy before my miscarriage—occupations that would accompany me and my grief.

Of course, my wife and I enjoyed the typical kindnesses we received for weeks after our pregnancy loss: meals, flowers, cards, and spa-themed items from Target. But it was these three special acts of care that reconnected me with the heart of my profession – that the occupations of our lives offer us healing wells.

In this month of occupational therapy, I find myself wishing for that same kind of healing for all of us who have survived the myriad losses of Covid-19. Re-embracing the meaningful pursuits of my life didn’t come from pulling myself together with a stiff upper lip. Instead, it was born out of the interdependence, care and support of others who know me well.

My companions and communities have invited me to gently re-engage in meaningful pursuits without ignoring or erasing my grief. Occupations do not ask us to put aside our losses to seek healing; they don’t require us to do everything perfectly or independently. This way of approaching our daily lives can help us find meaning, especially in the midst of suffering.

In this month of April, as the realities of Covid-19 continue to evolve and the stress of the semester escalates, Occupational Therapy Month invites each of us to return to actions that revive us; the occupations that guide us through the complexities of our lives.

We will need companions to help us on the road to recovery. Perhaps for some of us, an occupational therapist will serve as a companion on the journey to find new ways to modify, access or participate in the things we have given up due to changes in our bodies, our spirit or our soul.

Whatever disruption, grief or loss accompanies you this season, at the end of another semester, from this occupational therapist to you: may you experience the healing power of occupation in the days coming. With companions, may you find ways to return to the actions that give meaning to your life, both this occupational therapy month and beyond.

Sarah Jean Barton is an assistant professor of occupational therapy and theological ethics, with a joint professorship in the School of Medicine and the School of Theology.

Michael A. Bynum