Monday Medical: Promoting independence |

Monday Medical: Promoting independence

Occupational therapy allows people to regain higher functionality

Christine McKelvie

Yampa Valley Medical Center occupational therapists include, standing from left, Jacqueline Murphy, Sue Winters and Jane Sloan, and Angela Silvernail Melzer, sitting.

When I first heard the term "occupational therapy," I assumed it meant some sort of job counseling. How wrong I was.

Occupational therapy — which literally means therapy through activity — is a health care profession dedicated to helping people gain or regain a higher level of function and independence.

Yampa Valley Medical Center's team of occupational therapists has been improving lives for a combined total of more than 75 years. Sue Winters, Angela Silvernail Melzer, Jane Sloan, Jacqueline Murphy and Katie Roof convey an enthusiasm that is all about their patients.

"We help people from infancy through the generations," Murphy said.

"Occupational therapists treat such a variety of conditions, and we see different aspects of people's lives," Melzer added.

YVMC's therapists work in the Special Care Nursery to assist premature infants with feedings. They help children who have conditions that decrease their ability to tolerate sensory input.

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Adults recovering from stroke or trauma rely on occupational therapy to relearn how to get dressed, eat a meal and accomplish other everyday skills that we all take for granted.

OT also helps patients to safely increase their range of motion following joint replacement surgery.

Nobody is too young or too old to benefit, YVMC's therapists say.

"It is so rewarding to help autistic children who have no interest in or connection with the world," Murphy said. "Over time, therapy becomes the most exciting part of their week, and they bring their ideas that we can turn into actions."

"I've worked with people in their 90s who made a great impression on me," Melzer said. "They literally went from being bed-ridden to getting so much stronger and better that they were able to return home and live on their own."

Winters, who also is a certified hand therapist, said YVMC's occupational therapists provide home health care. They adapt home environments to accommodate temporary or permanent disabilities.

"We teach people how to use a plethora of adaptive equipment, including reachers, built-up silverware, sock aids and bath benches," Winters said. "Our goal is always to help each individual live his or her life to the fullest."

A newer OT program called "Connections" benefits Doak Walker Care Center residents who suffer from dementia and related agitated behaviors.

"We've had huge success," Melzer said. "By finding out what a resident can do and re-establishing routines and tasks, we have transformed lives."

The therapists recall one unhappy resident who did not speak or participate in any activities. With individualized OT and speech therapy, this elderly person began talking, sharing memories and sewing for enjoyment.

Occupational therapists often work alongside physical therapists and speech/language therapists to help patients who face multiple challenges. Together, the team develops individualized care plans.

During April, which is National Occupational Therapy Month, YVMC's therapists want to share some of their success stories. Their love for what they do is obvious. And the rewards revolve around their patients.

"I feel that when we help children, we are opening the door for them to be able to take care of themselves and be successful in the future," Murphy said.

Melzer talked about a man who was unable to even grasp silverware after suffering a devastating stroke. Now he not only wields a knife and fork with ease, but he also has mastered the art of using chopsticks.

She also spoke emotionally about a young man who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a vehicular crash.

Whenever he visits Steam­boat Springs, he stops by the Doak Walker Care Center to give hugs.

Melzer said the man recently shared his good news about enrolling in school. His goal is to have a career in health care, she said.

Christine McKelvie is the public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached by e-mail at