Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Listening to a band or hosting a tea party makes therapy more fun

Photos and interview by Louise Kinross

Carling Robertson (right) is an occupational therapist assistant at Holland Bloorview. She works with children with brain injury and youth preparing for employment. After doing an undergraduate degree in kinesiology, Carling changed course and began working for a trucking company. “I remember the exact moment when I said I can’t do this anymore,” she says. “I had spent months coordinating a huge delivery of hospital beds, and someone forgot to close the back of a 53-foot trailer. One of the beds in a crate fell off, and was super damaged. That broke the camel’s back.” Carling is a dancer and her cousin Deanna was hired recently as a registered practical nurse on the brain injury unit. This is how a client described Carling: "You made my heart so happy. Thank you for always being there for me...through this dark time...With so many other kids to help, you will probably forget me, but I will never forget you!"

BLOOM: How did you get into this field?

Carling Robertson:
My degree in kinesiology was a huge factor in wanting to get back into healthcare. I started to research rehab programs because I wanted to make a difference. I figured working with people during one of the most stressful and difficult times in their lives would allow me to do that. It appealed to me because I didn’t want my work to feel like a job, I wanted it to be my purpose. I did the two-year program at Humber, and my second placement was at Holland Bloorview.

BLOOM: What is a typical day like here?

Carling Robertson:
Three days a week I’m doing therapy with children who have acquired brain injury. The other two days I work with our youth employment programs helping to coordinate placements, job coach and facilitate community outings.

BLOOM: What’s the greatest joy?

Carling Robertson:
It’s the progression that you see in clients, and each child learning different things about themselves. With therapy, we’re working toward specific goals, so it’s seeing them achieve those goals. With youth employment, it’s having participants realize they may like doing a job that they’d never thought about. Or seeing them learn how to write a resume, ask for specific accommodations in an interview, or disclose their disability. No matter where I’m working, joy is being able to be a part of someone’s growth and their journey.

BLOOM: What is the greatest challenge?

Carling Robertson:
When I first started, it was the compassion fatigue. I didn’t realize it would hit me so hard.

BLOOM: I imagine it would be particularly hard working with children with acquired disabilities, and their families.

Carling Robertson:
I found myself leaving the building, and unable to shut off thinking about clients I’d just seen or others I’d be seeing soon. I’d throw myself into imagining what they were feeling, or what their family was feeling. I would go down a rabbit hole, and then I’d be completely exhausted, and feel like the weight of the world was on my shoulders.

BLOOM: How did you learn to manage that?

Carling Robertson:
I have extremely supportive teams in both areas. I was able to talk to them and ask: ‘How have you been able to do this for 20 or 30 years and not burn out?’

They told me this happens when you begin to work in this world. They said you need to know you’re doing everything you can, and the families are getting all of the resources we have to provide. To be there as a support is really important, but if you’re not there completely, they’re not going to benefit from it. It was the old airline analogy about putting on your own oxygen mask first.

BLOOM: So how do you personally do that?

Carling Robertson:
I had to teach myself that when I leave the building, I shut it off, and I don’t think about it till I’m back in the building the next day. If I can’t shut it off, I’ll talk to the OT I’m working with, and we’ll talk through it. It’s hard to explain this to people who aren’t in health care, so I’m super grateful to have supportive teams.

BLOOM: Do you do anything physical to manage stress?

Carling Robertson:
I’m a dancer and I love to dance if I can. It’s a physical [way] to get out all of the stress, confusion and anxiety that comes up on a daily basis. It helps me get it out of my body.

BLOOM: What have you learned from families?

Carling Robertson:
I’ve learned that families are incredibly resilient, and that every family is different. Every family has their own process, and every family copes differently. I’ve learned not to take things personally, because families are in such a difficult situation.

BLOOM: Acquired brain injury must have been a huge learning curve.

Carling Robertson:
There’s only so much you can learn from a textbook. In school, everything is presented in kind of a cookie-cutter way—these are the symptoms that are typically present. But when you come here, you realize every client is so different, even though they may have experienced the same type of injury.

You need to learn skills to adapt what you do based on the client. Two clients might have the same goals, but the way they get there will be different. Some of the kids are only motivated by Peppa Pig or Paw Patrol, while for others it’s their favourite band. Learning how to incorporate what they love into therapy makes it so much more meaningful. One of my favourite parts of the job is thinking outside the box.

BLOOM: What are the most important qualities for someone in your job?

Carling Robertson:
Patience is number one and empathy for sure. You have to be flexible and adaptable, because no two days are the same. One of the great things about Holland Bloorview is that I’m given latitude to be creative and to come up with new ideas. For example, one of my young clients asked if I could go to a tea party at her house. So we’re going to do it here, instead. You need a willingness to learn. If you think you know everything, that’s detrimental. You also need a willingness to accept constructive feedback from colleagues and families.

BLOOM: If you could change one thing in children’s rehab, what would it be?

Carling Robertson:
I think the gaps in programs and resources for specific age groups. I’d love one long, continuous road map of resources from birth, all the way to employment.

BLOOM: You have a tattoo on your arm. What does it say?

Carling Robertson:
It says curiouser and curiouser. It’s the only quote I could remember from Alice in Wonderland. It makes me think of someone observing something that’s a bit different, and wanting to learn more about it, to get to the bottom of it. It’s about thinking more critically. I knew that being curious would be a constant in my life. I’m super curious getting to know each client, and finding out how they tick, and what I can include in therapy that will make just that little bit of a difference.