Already able to breathe on her own and move both sides of her body, Tucson shooting victim and congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has been making remarkable progress since the events of January 8. The long-term effects of her brain injury won’t be known for months, if not years, however. In the meantime, she needs help from all sorts of health professionals: besides doctors, she’ll be working with various medical therapists. Add rehabilitation assistants to the list.
Trained to support physiotherapists, occupational therapists, and in some cases speech and language pathologists, rehabilitation assistants are members of an emerging health-care field, one that’s certain to grow as the population ages.
It’s a career that North Vancouver’s Jennifer Mathieson is eager to get started in.
“This brings together all of my passions,” the 19-year-old Capilano University student says in an interview with the Georgia Straight. “I wanted to be helping people, and I like the idea of a job that’s very hands-on.”
Sitting at a desk all day isn’t for her: a registered aqua-fitness instructor, Mathieson plays soccer and hockey and is training for a half-marathon.
She is in her first year of Capilano’s two-year rehabilitation-assistant diploma program. Several aspects of the course appealed to Mathieson. The campus is a 10-minute drive from home. Once she’s done the course, she’ll have the option of transferring her credits to another institution where she can complete a bachelor of science degree and then earn a master’s in physical or occupational therapy, the required education to become a physical or occupational therapist. But especially attractive is the fact that when she graduates from Cap next year, she’ll pretty much be guaranteed a job.
“There’s a big demand for rehab assistants,” says Tracy Dignum, a coordinator of Capilano’s program, in a phone interview. “The reality is that, especially with the aging population, there’s more work in rehab than people can possibly handle right now. We need more skilled support personnel.”
Students can go on to work in acute-care hospital settings, residential care, geriatric care, facilities like the GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre, or private practice.
Dignum, who herself used to work as a physiotherapist, says that Capilano’s program limits class size to 20, and there are usually wait lists for the program. It’s the only school in B.C. where rehab assistants get training in speech and language pathology and audiology. Eighty-five percent of the students are female, and the average age is 30. Students complete three five-week practicum placements.
What distinguishes rehab assistants from therapists, Dignum explains, is that therapists carry out the clinical-judgment part of patient care, conducting the initial assessment with the patient and developing treatment and discharge plans. Rehab assistants, meanwhile, work with patients to do specific exercises and tasks aimed at reaching predetermined goals.
“Say a patient has had a knee replacement,” Dignum says. “The RA can carry out bed exercises and work on range of motion.”¦A lot of the fun stuff, the hands-on stuff, is done by the RAs.”
Other examples of the kind of work rehab assistants do include getting seniors out for daily walks and conducting group-exercise programs. They might teach people how to use adaptive technologies: say, teaching someone who has lost arm function new ways to use a computer. They might help people who’ve had a stroke or a brain injury relearn how to cook meals and get dressed. Those who are assisting speech and language pathologists or audiologists might perform hearing screenings. RAs work with everyone from people who have suffered burns, amputations, and multiple traumas to those with Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
“Our grads rate their job satisfaction as very high,” Dignum says. “They report that they’re using their skills, making a contribution to society, and helping people. They’re making worthwhile accomplishments.”
The ability to have a positive impact is what drew Derek Baker to the field. A rehabilitation assistant at GF Strong, he studied at Okanagan University College after spending a few years as a labourer. He works in the centre’s spinal-cord unit, doing everything from teaching wheelchair skills to helping those who’ve lost hand function learn how to brush their teeth.
“I wanted to make a difference in the community,” Baker, 32, says in a phone interview. “I get to see and help make incredible changes in people’s lives. Seeing them get back into the community, to their jobs and to their families, is inspirational. I see courageous people with amazing attitudes every day.”
Carmen Kimoto, instructor and practicum coordinator in Vancouver Community College’s occupational/physical therapist assistant program, says that potential rehab assistants should have empathy, patience, and strong interpersonal skills.
“The ability to communicate with people is the most important part,” Kimoto, a former occupational therapist, says from her office. “You have to be able to motivate people and have people trust you. If they have a lot of pain, they might not want to get out of bed. They might be intimidated by learning to tie their shoes with one hand.”¦You have to have a lot of dedication. What’s nice about rehab is helping people be independent, seeing them maximize their potential, and seeing people excel.”
VCC also limits class size to 20, and students can transfer their credits if they want to further their education. Students get 15 weeks of practicum experience, and the focus of the two-year program is on practical skills.
“We have labs set up to look like real hospital settings,” Kimoto says of the college’s Broadway campus. “It’s an exciting place to learn. It’s a rewarding career in an increasingly recognized field, and students are excited to be here.”