Patient and Practitioner: An OT Associate Professor’s Journey

Andrea - OTAndrea Tyszka’s, MS, OTR/L, SIPT, energy is palpable and infectious when she’s in the classroom. The associate professor’s Occupational Therapy (OT) students even affectionately call her their OT mom because of her caring and positive nature. A highlight of her teaching style includes using real-life examples to illustrate her points. One such example involves reading a narrative about how her multiple sclerosis (MS) impacts her life on a daily basis.
 
Being a patient, associate professor and practitioner puts her in a unique position. Her MS influences her life daily, whether it’s relating to various aspects of OT in the classroom, in practice as a clinical supervisor at Functionally Able Rehab, a center providing  full range assessment, diagnosis and intervention services for school-age children in South Jersey, or in her professional research activities.
 
MS is a wide-ranging, unpredictable disease. The body’s central nervous system essentially attacks its own protective lining, which can lead to communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body. According to the National MS Society, most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, with at least two to three times more women than men being diagnosed with the disease.
 
“I came into this knowing what MS was about, and what I could expect at least from a textbook standpoint,” Tyszka said. “But, I always tell people you don’t get MS until you get MS. That fatigue is very difficult to explain to people who don’t experience it. I definitely have a lot of pain that many don’t know about because I don’t talk about it. Sometimes people close to me can pick up my pain days, but I try not to mention it because it’s not going to make it go away.”
 
There are days where Tyszka feels strong and full of energy, but there are other days where if overexerted, she may need to spend a few days in bed to recoup her lost energy.
 
“You never know what each day is going to bring,” she said. “When I have the energy for something, I do it. When I don’t, I don’t. I’ve learned not to push myself because when I go too far beyond my limits, I pay for that.”
 
MS presents itself in a variety of ways and differs significantly for each individual. For Tyszka, it was an issue with her eyesight that gave her the first warning of things to come.
 
Learning her diagnosis
 
“When I first started to see some of the symptoms, I recognized my vision loss as being unique,” she said about her own experience. “I was 30 at the time so everyone kept saying, ‘Oh your eyes are just getting old.’ I knew from my OT training that there was something neurological going on with my vision; it was not normal.”
 
After a round of visits to 12 different vision specialists, Tyszka was presented with two paths – a pituitary tumor or optic neuritis, inflammation of the optic nerve. Hoping for the latter, she went home and dove headfirst into researching medical journals. According to her initial research, optic neuritis is often the first clinical sign of MS.
 
“I remember at the time, I wasn’t married; I wasn’t even engaged, but I said to my boyfriend at the time, who is now my husband, ‘Oh my god, I have MS. From everything that I’m reading, that’s absolutely what I have,’” she said.

Muckfest MS Philly
 
Fifteen years later
 
Fifteen years after Tyszka’s original diagnosis, there have certainly been hills and valleys during her journey with the unpredictable nature of the disease, but she focuses on positive psychology to help during especially difficult episodes. Even on her worst days, when the pain and fatigue are overwhelming, Tyszka does not wallow in her condition. Instead, she focuses on the positive influences around her – her husband Stan, her son CJ, her family and her students.
 
“I have a pretty positive outlook, but that’s not to say there weren’t moments where I was crying in my bathroom saying, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me,’” she said. “I did have my moments, but generally, whenever I hit what I call a ‘health hiccup’ with my MS, I give myself about two days to feel sorry for myself, then I have to just keep going and continue to be proactive.”
 
Through her research over the last 15 years, Tyszka has tried a variety of methods that could potentially prevent her disease from progressing, including less medicinal, more holistic options and lifestyle additions such as yoga, a healthy diet and consistent exercise.
 
“Although I knew taking my medication would be an important step in staying healthy, I also wanted to do something more to take care on my health,” Tyszka said.
 
That’s what initially led her down the road toward studying health and wellness in women with MS, while pursuing her post-professional master’s degree. Together with Dr. Ruth Farber, associate professor in the University’s OT program, they found that participation and health-related quality of life activities were connected to health promoting behaviors such as eating well, being physically active, managing stress, having positive interpersonal relations, and developing spiritual growth. Tyszka hopes to continue to study health and wellness behaviors, this time in adolescents who have been diagnosed with MS, as a doctoral student in the Salus post-professional Doctorate of Occupational Therapy (OTD) program, with a Health and Wellness concentration.
 
Tyszka’s diagnosis and life with MS has also influenced her teaching. Throughout all of her courses at Salus, she emphasizes narrative clinical reasoning, which involves getting to know patients beyond  their conditions and diagnoses.
 
“We talk to our OT students a lot about narrative clinical reasoning, about knowing someone’s story and how that really helps you to provide better care,” she explained. “When you get to know them better as a person first then a patient, it really helps you provide better treatment.”
 
Because of the familial atmosphere of Salus, within the OT program and in particular, Tyszka’s students have been a strong influence on her positive outlook as well. Spearheaded by the Student Occupational Therapy Association, Salus University has participated in MuckFest, a muddy obstacle course challenge, and raised more than $11,000 for MS research, since 2015.
 
“I don’t know if I can explain how humbling that is,” she said, while thinking about the effort her students have put into creating a successful event. “They say I’m the OT mom because we’re an OT family. It means a lot to me that they come out on the course with me every year. It’s definitely heartwarming to see your students rally around a cause that’s near and dear to your heart.”