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July 2006


Most professionals in health care will probably tell you they chose their career because of a desire to help people. Many of these professionals, however, have very personal reasons for answering the call: a sister, a brother, a parent, a child whose condition was transformed by the special care of a nurse or occupational therapist or physical therapist.

Or perhaps the moment of recognition was even more personal than that, as those helping hands restored not only one's own health but also purpose: to go forth and heal as one has been healed.

'I had always wanted to care for others.'

John Malcuit was 49 years old when he suffered a medical crisis that few people survive: An aneurysm had burst in his brain. As he lost consciousness, medical personnel diagnosed and sent him via helicopter to University Hospitals in Iowa City. There, an elite surgery team worked feverishly to stop the bleeding and repair the damage to keep him alive.

They succeeded, and set John on the path to a new life–and career.

"I met many nurses," John says of his month-long stay in the hospital. "One man in particular made a big impact on me. He had been in construction and decided one day to go into nursing. He said he had always wanted to nurture or care for others. He showed me that nursing is not just for women."

After three months of successful physical and speech therapy, John, who is a 1974 business and economics graduate of St. Ambrose, returned to his job as assistant store manager at Eagle Food Stores. When the chain went into Chapter 13 two years ago, the words of the male nurse came back to him.

"He told me, ‘You're a great patient. You'd make a great nurse.' I had always wanted to care for others, and he helped me see myself in that role. My experience had shown me what real nurses do. They are part of a team that helps diagnose and implement care. I enrolled at SAU and started on this path to becoming a nurse," says John, who is currently a junior in the program.

"I've still got 15 or 20 years in me that I can do something of value for others. And this is it."

'We knew what a difference an OT could make for a family.'

Of the five Toohill children, Brian is the most fun-loving and joyful. There's nothing he likes better than to be tickled. He also loves going for car rides, listening to music, and watching Barney videos.

Brian Toohill is 20 years old and has cerebral palsy. Diagnosed during his first year of life, he began therapy early. But his case is so challenging that he's never been able to do much alone. He needs help walking and eating. He needs help using a wheelchair. He needs help in nearly every activity of daily life.

Yet he's the apple of his family's eye.

"We wouldn't change Brian for anything!" Veronica Toohill '01, '02 MOT, says of her youngest brother. "I don't know what I would be doing without him."

The same could be said by Veronica's twin sister, Christina '01, '02 MOT. Having become occupational therapists together, they also accepted jobs at the Bloomington, Ill., Easter Seals Center near the family farm to help out with their brother's care. Both recount a home life inspired and enlivened by him.

"All seven of us-including Mom and Dad-would load up the van and drive to Brian's therapy sessions," Christina says. "Veronica and I would come home and play therapy with Brian afterward. Dad had built a five-person rocking board, like the small one used at the therapy office, and all of us would climb on and lie next to each other and rock. Then, we would put Brian on the therapy ball.

"We tried to imitate Brian's occupational therapist," she continues. "We knew as far back as grade school what we wanted to be when we grew up. All the other kids would answer ‘doctor' or ‘model.' But we answered ‘OT.' The other kids didn't know what that was-and maybe we didn't either, exactly-but we wanted to do that."

Last year, Brian Toohill walked across the stage, with help, for his special-education high school graduation, and his sisters couldn't have been prouder.

"He has come such a long way," Veronica says. "I remember the first time I saw him feed himself. I was so proud of him. Brian is happy and makes us happy, too. God works in mysterious ways. I'm grateful for it."

'This allows me to care for members of my community in a practical, helpful way.'

When you ask MOT student Carleen Cochran why she chose occupational therapy as her profession, she'll tell you it's all about neighborliness. Carleen grew up on a farm near Peoria, Ill., watching farmers respond to their neighbors' needs. If someone took ill in the spring, his fellow farmers gathered to help plant. If someone was injured during harvest, they would appear to finish bringing in the crops.

"Farmers tend to be very close-knit and will do anything for each other," she says. "They can help with farm chores, and that's critical. But getting an injured farmer back into the field is everything. Agricultural occupational therapy is designed to do that."

Carleen remembers many neighbors struggling to keep on farming despite such handicaps as amputations and muscle tears.

"My own cousin had his left arm amputated after he got it caught in a corn picker 30 years ago," she says. "He was left-handed. He still needs help with some everyday activities. The program I'm working for now could have helped him adapt more effectively."

That program, AgrAbility, is designed to help farmers rehabilitate injuries and use adaptive equipment to accomplish their work.

"A lot of people give up farming when they suffer serious injuries," Carleen says. "But even farmers with spinal cord injuries can be helped. We have tractor lifts that will transfer a farmer from his wheelchair up to the cab of a tractor. We have hand-operated controls for the brake and clutch and gas."

Carleen herself invented a piece of adaptive equipment that won first place in the student category of the prestigious American Occupational Therapy Association's Maddak Awards for 2005.

"Professor Jon Turnquist and I created a one-handed hammer for amputees," she explains. "It has a magnet on the end that holds a nail or staple in place, releasing it when the nail is tacked in.

"I love this work. Occupational therapists care so much for their clients. And this allows me to care for members of my community in a practical, helpful way."

'He is an inspiration to everyone who meets him.'

While other kids played teacher and doctor, Heather Hill played physical therapist with her brother Rob when they were little. Rob was the patient because he had cerebral palsy. Heather learned her role by watching Rob's physical therapist during his weekly appointments.

"I loved his PT, and copied him when we got home," Heather says. "I loved helping Rob-or pretending to help him! He's seven years older than I am. He was so good to put up with my make-believe."

It's not make-believe anymore, though. Heather will begin courses in the doctor of physical therapy program this fall, 2,000 miles from where Rob now lives on his own, working for Boeing as an engineer.

"Physically, his case is pretty severe, so he has to have an aide come in and help with daily living skills every day," she says. "And he has to have a driver take him to and from work.

"Rob would love to be able to receive physical therapy now, but the expense would be enormous for the level of therapy he needs. My goal is to learn techniques that will help him, and teach them to him.

"Rob and I could make a great team. My pipe dream is to have him design adaptive equipment that I'd implement. He has designed clothing and a hoisting pole for himself already. He is an inspiration to everyone who meets him."

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