Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021 | 2 a.m.
The occupational therapists in training at UNLV will one day work with people recovering from strokes, injury — and COVID-19.
Occupational therapy treats people of all ages who have permanent and temporary conditions — some they’ve had since birth; others, perhaps, from injuries or other maladies — to overcome and adapt to their physical challenges when doing everyday activities.
It’s a specialty with a wide audience and distinct from physical therapy, which is for helping people move their bodies, said Donna Costa, who directs UNLV’s doctorate of occupational therapy program, which began in 2020. Occupational therapy is about functional activity, which someone who has come through a severe bout of COVID may have lost “because of fatigue or respiratory issues or long-term neurological issues, and of course depression and anxiety” too, Costa said.
She said she figured early on in the coronavirus pandemic that occupational therapists like herself, and soon, her students, would be tapped to help surviving patients get back to normal after being depleted by the virus, adding to the diverse knowledge bank the program aimed to build in students when it started last year.
Professor Christina Bustanoby works with recovering COVID patients before they’ve even left the hospital. With battered lungs that might still be receiving supplemental oxygen, many patients lack the strength to even walk to a bathroom. She can work with them on grooming and relieving themselves in or inches from bed.
Recovery has to take baby steps when a patient is still struggling to breathe.
“COVID really wipes people out,” she said.
First-year student Erik Regalado said he was drawn to helping people build confidence and reach their potential. He said he learned sports medicine in high school, but he didn’t connect with that field. Occupational therapy hits closer, and he sees the same limits after COVID as he does in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“COVID can have that effect,” he said.
A house in the Las Vegas medical district has been retrofitted for the therapy program with traditional classroom and office space, plus a simulated home environment for training or re-teaching basics after any diagnosis.
In a sunny and colorful room, students in scrubs perch baby dolls on swings where real infants would gain core strength and the ability to process movement and positioning. Children born prematurely or with Down syndrome or other developmental disabilities and delays can need extra help building their motor skills and body awareness, said instructor Kaitlin Ploeger. With a therapist, it looks like play with ball pits to crawl out of, yoga mats to pose on and a balance beam and exercise balls for standing, walking and sitting steadily.
In another room is a driving simulator. It’s a sophisticated computer game, with realistic blinker sounds and the white noise of wheels on asphalt. The simulator can safely assess if people with visual or cognitive impairments possess the tools to be on the road.
In other rooms, students help each other get out of bed, run a load of laundry or slice fruit with limited mobility.
UNLV students are admitted to the program in classes of 36 and begin hands-on field training and observation in the first semester of the three-year course of study. The second cohort just started and the first class will graduate in 2023.
Hopefully, Costa said, graduates will stick around — she said Nevada only had about 1,200 occupational therapists, mostly in Las Vegas and Reno. To nurture homegrown talent, 70% of students are from the area.
One of those locals is Cynthia Lee, who earned a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology at UNLV to prepare for the field. She knew she wanted to be an occupational therapist when she was 13 and she saw the therapists who took care of her grandfather after he had a stroke.
“It helps people be able to achieve their optimal abilities,” she said.