Adventist University's occupational therapy program teaches medical care and compassion in a novel way: helping the uninsured regain skills to pursue their professions and passions.
For too long, occupational therapist Tia Hughes witnessed patients unable to receive the care they needed because insurance companies wouldn't cover their treatment.
Though it's an expansive discipline that helps individuals regain skills essential for their professions or to pursue their passions, occupational therapy often is misunderstood or undervalued, according to Hughes.
"We help people get back to their lives, from teaching kids how to use crayons to helping stroke patients drive cars again," she says. "But insurance companies don't consider OT a medical necessity."
That frustration, however, inspired Hughes. As a faculty member at Adventist University of Health Sciences – an educational institution affiliated with Florida Hospital – Hughes sought to create an innovative curriculum to better teach her students and serve the community. The result? Faculty and students working side-by-side to provide occupational therapy to the uninsured.
What began as a volunteer initiative in 2011 has evolved into a required three-semester course in the master's degree OT program. Hughes' effort also established the HOPE Clinic (Healing through Occupation, Purpose and Excellence) – making Adventist University's OT program the first in Florida to operate its own free-standing clinic.
Beginning in 2014, OT students expanded their work and now provide life-skills training for the underprivileged and homeless at the Community Food and Outreach Center in Orlando.
In 2011, Adventist University of Health Sciences established the HOPE Clinic in Orlando, providing occupational therapy to the uninsured. The initiative made the OT program the first in Florida to operate its own free-standing clinic.
For Central Florida residents who have no other means to receive occupational therapy, the HOPE Clinic has been life-saving. Just ask Michael Legler.
Shortly after arriving at work on March 19, 2014, Legler, general manager of an automotive recycling facility, suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed on the left side of his body. The Navy veteran was only 36, but even standing upright was difficult. "I was wobbly like a newborn deer," he says.
Possessing only supplemental insurance that didn't cover OT, Legler was on his own. Fortunately, he learned of the HOPE Clinic and now makes a three-hour roundtrip commute weekly from his home in Rockledge to receive therapy. Initially, Legler was unable to complete tasks as simple as putting on a belt. But he says he's now about "75 percent back to normal."
As appreciative as Legler is for the care that he has received, he's equally grateful for the compassion and hope provided by faculty and students.
"You can teach therapy out of a book, but it can't make someone believe again," Legler says. "I owe them more than I can ever pay."
But the experience, arguably, is just as transformative for the students.
"A lot of them have never really had the experience of being around people who don't have a lot," says Hughes, who is now the department chair of occupational therapy. "To be in those settings has been the most impactful. They're not only developing clinical skills, but a sense of empathy."
Ultimately, Hughes says, it answers the questions: "Why are you here? Are you here for a job – or are you here to change lives?"