Summer adventures in occupational therapy

Incredible breakthroughs are happening every day in the health sciences, but none of those breakthroughs can replace the kind of experience that led exercise science major Brianna Abernathy ’24 to pursue multiple internships during summer 2023.

Brianna Abernathy

“My plan is to go to graduate school for occupational therapy (OT) and the exercise science major requires internship hours,” Abernathy said. “So, I wanted to learn about treatments and therapies in different settings. It’s mostly observation at this point because I’m still a student, but just talking and interacting with the patients benefits them.”

As a teenager, Abernathy learned about occupational therapy when her grandfather had a stroke.

“I knew what physical therapy was, but I hadn’t heard of OT. I thought it was really interesting because it’s more about helping people with daily tasks. That felt really meaningful to me,” she explained.

Abernathy’s first internship of the summer took her to the Shaire Center in Lenoir, North Carolina. This residential facility provides nursing, rehabilitation, assisted living and memory care for older adults. The rehabilitation services include physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy.

“I shadowed one of the occupational therapists, so I learned about the evaluation process and the different equipment used in therapy and to help patients do normal tasks,” Abernathy said. “For example, there’s this simple device I love called a sock aid. It’s a plastic piece with a rope attached. You put your sock in it, then put it on the ground and hold the rope. Then the patient can just their foot in it, and their sock is on. I was really interested in all the devices and pieces of equipment like that.”

Brianna Abernathy in the lab.

Occupational therapy sessions are often structured around games that help with patient mobility and finer movements. These activities might be as simple as a gentle round of catch, which gave Abernathy a chance to interact with patients on a personal level.

“I would just toss the ball and bounce it occasionally, and they would do the same back to me. We’d go back and forth on that, and we’d talk,” she said. “Some of them were from Taylorsville, North Carolina, my hometown, and we’d talk about that, about the high school there. One was an LR alum who went here in the 1960s. I liked hearing what campus was like then versus now, and it’s good for the residents to share their stories. I felt like I was having an impact by being there with them.”

For her second internship, Abernathy switched to pediatric clients at Little Angels Therapy, a Hickory-based clinic providing physical, occupational, speech and early intervention services.

“It was different working with kids, of course,” said Abernathy. “It was also different because we were mostly working through home visits. I was still shadowing the therapist, but I played games with the kids — matching games, for example. A lot of them love blowing bubbles as therapy.”

Now that her internships are over, and Abernathy gets ready for the next step in her career journey, she is reflecting on her experiences and considering where she wants to specialize.

“I’m not sure which direction I want to go long term. I love kids, but I have a soft spot for older people because I feel like I communicate well with them,” she said. “I really just want to make a positive impact on patients’ lives. A lot of people don’t have a support system, so being an extra smiling face makes a world of difference.”