What’s it like being an occupational therapist (OT) on the front lines, battling the COVID-19 pandemic day in and day out?

Katelyn McCaw, MSOT ’16, knows. She works at a 182-bed nursing home facility that provides short-term and long-term rehabilitation for patients, and the facility recently experienced its first positive test for the virus.

Katie McCawPrior to that, residents had been encouraged to stay on their wing, one of five in the facility, abide by a six-foot social distancing guideline and wear masks if they believed it was appropriate.

“As a rehab department we had been wearing masks for about a month throughout the facility. Once the positive diagnosis news hit, we were in full PPE (mask, any eyewear hopefully face shields and gowns) plus gloves that we changed following each patient, at all times,” said McCaw.

In addition, staff members’ temperatures were taken every day before the shift started and again at the end of the shift before employees went home. A full quarantine of the facility was put into effect, which included residents remaining in their rooms with doors closed to each wing of the facility. 

“It was definitely a scary time to say the least. As OTs we know how important therapy is. We want our patients up and moving, staying healthy, performing functional tasks and becoming as independent as they can be,” said McCaw. “But I’m not going to lie, I considered taking two weeks off of work to quarantine and keep myself safe, but realized the residents and those who would be admitted to us with COVID-19 would be just as scared as I was.”

McCaw believes OT is needed now more than ever. She said that once the facility had its first positive test, other positive tests followed, coming in groups of three and four. Every new patient admitted had to be symptom-free for 72 hours. The staff completed evaluations and treatments as normal, but within patients’ rooms.

“So as you can imagine, these patients are weak, tired and probably scared,” she said. “Not everyone was willing to get up and walk right away for their physical therapy evals, which is why OT is so needed at a time like this. We can make people feel more comfortable, speak with them during their meals as we assess their UB (upper body) strength, coordination and assistance level.”

McCaw stressed empathy has been an important aspect of helping treat those with the virus.

“Due to quarantine, these people haven’t been able to have contact with family members or loved ones since they first got sick,” she said. “Making people feel comfortable during their treatment times is important because that is probably the most human contact they’ve had since being hospitalized.”

McCaw said it was important for OTs to be there for their patients during this crisis and emphasized that healthcare workers needed to also take care of themselves at the same time. It’s a stressful time for both healthcare workers and their patients as the battle continues to get the virus under control. 

“I certainly could not have imagined that I would be on the front lines treating people during this pandemic,” she said. “But as OTs, we are needed to assist with maintaining and improving these patients’ functional abilities to help get them to their most independent, healthiest selves.”