Occupational therapy is Emma McClellan’s second career. She originally went to art school and worked in metal shops and bronze foundries. When two coworkers each lost a finger, she found herself interested in their exercises and the difference their OT made for them. “I watched them go from despair to feeling like they got their lives back,” she said.
She started talking to OTs and looking for ways to volunteer within the profession, and she was hooked. She found a job she loved in acute care, but she was eager to continue learning. “I’m very much in the right career now, and it’s made me bolder,” she explained. Wanting to be the best clinician that she could be for her patients, Emma began looking into furthering her education.
She decided to earn her OTD from EKU. “A 100% online program was key for me because I had a career and a job I wanted to keep,” she said.
What does her OTD mean to her? “I work with physicians and FNPs. Having a doctoral degree gives me a place at the table. It says that I have reached the gold standard in my profession. It’s the equivalent of labeling all my passion for OT, my desire to help my patients and the work I’ve done professionally and academically,” she explained.
With the support of her EKU faculty and her work colleagues, Emma customized her degree to match her interests and career goals. “I was able to connect every project I did back to what I was doing on the job,” she recalled. She would read in the evenings, discuss acute care connections with her EKU instructors and often share what she learned with her fellow OTs and the care team at work the following day.
Her graduate courses paid off in the workplace. “I was fortunate to be in an environment where they could see that my coursework was real-world focused and over time it made a real difference,” she said.
Over and over, Emma has drawn on what she learned from her OTD classes helping her bring new ideas into the ICU that have led to positive changes for the OTs, the patients and the entire care team. Her capstone project was on patient delirium.
“Transplant patients spend a lot of time in the hospital, and if we can honor their personhood that will go a long way in their recovery,” she explained. Simple progressions like working with a patient on a ventilator so that they can stand and hug their spouse provides a sense of safety and accomplishment that they can carry with them as they work on their recovery.
When she took a course in health literacy, she immediately saw connections that would benefit the heart and liver transplant patients in her care. She took what she learned to the other OTs she worked with, and they collaborated to create a new assessment. “The case management team loved it so much that it’s evolved into a required assessment for all heart and lung transplant patients,” she explained.
“EKU’s program took my broad interest in ICU care and helped me find my passion,” she said. “Health literacy and health management skills are so important for transplant patients. If I can figure out how to incorporate them more creatively into patient care . . . well, who wouldn’t be excited about that?” she said.
She’s also maintained relationships with several of her EKU professors. Their care for their students and the profession is unmatched. “I still reach out to them with individual clinical issues, and they call me when they have students with interests in what I’m doing,” said Emma.
EKU occupational therapy capstone projects are available to the public, which makes it easy for prospective students to get a sense of what’s possible in the program and helps researchers across the United States connect and collaborate. Meeting others who share her interests has been an unexpected perk for Emma. “I love that because it’s taking the research that I did and taking the next step through someone else. That’s how we will move into evidence-based practice and meaningful change,” she said.
Thanks to her advanced degree, Emma sees opportunities to make a real difference each and every day. “They say in ICU that you meet your patients on their worst day. I won’t say that I meet mine on their best day, but I get to meet them at their new beginning,” she said.