A large group of occupation therapy alumni hold up large OT and QU signs and smile for the camera

Half a century

Occupational therapy alumni were excited to gather again to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the program, its origins and its future.

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n 1969, scores of American veterans were returning from Vietnam, their lives irrevocably changed by physical and psychological wounds. Concurrently, children with disabilities could not hope for the same educational outcomes as their peers, and older adults with mobility issues often found themselves sidelined.

That same year, a small occupational therapy program in Connecticut was launched. That program would evolve through 50 years of technological, social and educational advances to become a nationally ranked powerhouse with more than 3,000 alumni who leave indelible marks on the lives of children, adults, veterans and numerous other populations across the country.

The story of Quinnipiac’s OT program is one of both constants and change. Classes are no longer held in shaky metal trailers on the Mount Carmel Campus. Pottery and leather stamping are no longer part of the curriculum, nor is the U.S. Army Craft Manual required reading. However, as Betsey Smith, senior associate dean of the School of Health Sciences and a 1979 OT alumna, reminded several generations of graduates, the culture of compassion, adaptability and inclusivity begun 50 years ago remains unchanged.

“I want to make sure that the newer graduates appreciate that this hasn’t changed,” said Smith, speaking at a 50th anniversary celebration held in September on the North Haven Campus. “It’s important for people to understand where we came from, and the legacy of the individuals who came before.”

No figure looms as large as the late Ruth M. Griffin, the founding director of Quinnipiac’s occupational therapy program. Griffin graduated from the Boston School of Occupational Therapy at Tufts University in 1946 and went on to become a highly sought-after leader in her field, both nationally and internationally. She arrived at Quinnipiac College in 1969 to develop the OT curriculum in what was then the School of Allied Health and Natural Sciences.

As chief architect of OT at Quinnipiac, Griffin developed an interdisciplinary program alongside faculty from the physical therapy department. The finalized curriculum was divided into three areas of practice — mental health, physical disabilities and pediatrics—and many courses integrated both OT and PT students.

“Ruth was interprofessional in every sense,” said Kim Hartmann ’76, MHS ’82, professor of occupational therapy and director of the Center for Interprofessional Healthcare Education at Quinnipiac. “Her enthusiasm for the rehabilitation sciences paved the way for all future OT alumni.”

In Griffin, Smith remembers an outspoken, deeply knowledgeable and forward-thinking mentor who reminded students that their job was to help people live their own uniqueness. She also instilled in them a healthy fear of growing complacent in their profession.

“Ruth always said that it was our responsibility to create our future,” Smith said. “She made sure we had our 5- and 10-year plans mapped out.”

The OT program’s first 10 years were marked by tremendous growth. The number of graduates increased from 13 in the inaugural class of 1974 to 49 by the start of the next decade. Increased enrollment forced the program to move from spaces at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford and classrooms at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven in the 1970s to a building on Sherman Avenue in Hamden at the start of the 1980s. It was known affectionately as the “Sherm Shack.”

“There were 42 of us together for three semesters in that one room,” recalled a smiling Hartmann.

The role of OTs significantly expanded in many arenas over that period, thanks to the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. The latter was significant for Smith, who got her first job in a public school system in 1979. She is amazed at how far her profession has come with supporting a student’s ability to participate in school activities.

“A lot of what we were doing back then was trial and error,” said Smith, “but we were always able to determine where our patients were emotionally and what they needed next.”

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Alumni Virginia Ells helps a patient with a new arm prosthesis at her office in Guilford

Compassionate care

Virginia Ells ’82, left, a certified hand therapist, helps Justin Brownell with a new prosthesis at her office in Guilford, Connecticut.

Fellow alumna Virginia Ells ’82, an occupational therapist who specializes in hand therapy at Yale New Haven Health in Guilford, also counts empathy among a therapist’s assets.

“Because OT education includes mental health and psychosocial components, we are always in touch with our patients’ emotional well-being,” Ells said.

Clients often arrive in Ells’ office for their first appointment frightened or still shell-shocked from surgery. They may have replanted fingers, tendons and nerve transfers or joint arthroplasties. Much of their therapy is focused on the completion of common, real-life tasks, such as cutting food, dressing, or activities to facilitate their return to work. Ells strives to establish rapport and trust, even as she sometimes guides patients through difficult, but necessary exercises.

“My compassion definitely shines through during therapy,” she said. “I reassure my patients that while what we’re about to do might be painful, it’s not harmful.”

Advances in technology in the 1980s, particularly with computers, significantly impacted OT education, and Quinnipiac was determined to stay on top of it. In 1984, Apple gave the department 10 Apple 2E and 10 2C computers and also trained OT students on software designed to help people with cognitive and thinking disorders improve their memory, attention span and reading speed. The software was so new that it was still being beta tested.

Today, OT students have an even greater array of cutting-edge resources at their disposal, including motion analysis and biomechanics labs, and a model apartment that teaches them how to deliver care in a residential setting. For Hartmann, the “bells and whistles” are only half of what has enabled Quinnipiac to graduate highly skilled occupational therapists.

“I attribute it to the educational connection between the faculty and students over the years,” Hartmann said. “Our program is built upon the transfer of knowledge between human beings.”

Elizabeth Francis-Connolly ’81, dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Health and Science at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, and vice chair for the American Occupational Therapy Research Foundation, agrees. She recalled Quinnipiac faculty being role models who held her to incredibly high standards, but also allowed her to fail and learn from their mistakes. Most importantly, Francis-Connolly remembers how she and her classmates shaped their teachers.

“Leaders influence those they lead and are in turn influenced by them,” Francis-Connolly said.

She believes that, like all good leaders, OTs learn from their clients to help them reach their potential. Ells also likens the relationship between occupational therapists and their patients to that of a teacher and a student.

“We give our patients the tools to be active and willing participants in their therapy and teach them how to manage pain on their own,” she said.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. That same year, the OT program moved into the new Echlin Health Sciences Center on the Mount Carmel Campus. Occupational therapists continued branching out into newer, community-based settings over the next decade.

Quinnipiac expanded its OT curriculum to include a master’s in occupational therapy in 2003, following a national mandate for OT programs to do so by 2006. To further meet the demands of OT education, the program moved again in 2009 to the spacious and interdisciplinary Center for Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences on the North Haven Campus.

“It can be difficult for higher education institutions to keep pace with so much change, but we are ahead of the curve,” said Sal Bondoc, chair of Quinnipiac’s occupational therapy department.

Bondoc joined the OT faculty in 2006 and became department chair in 2013. He was instrumental in the conversion of the master’s program into the post-professional occupational therapy doctorate in 2014 as well as the rollout of the certificate of advanced graduate studies in cccupational therapy in 2019. Both were designed to enable current OT professionals to earn stackable micro-credentials in a range of different specialties, such as hand therapy and school-based learning.

“OT is an a la carte service, and it’s as relevant today for babies in the NICU as it is for adults in advanced age,” Bondoc said.

Bondoc has experienced how the term “occupation” has been expanded in his field to encompass all of the meaningful and necessary things that can occupy one’s time and help form one’s identity. He recalled seeing an 85-year-old patient in a clinic who was puzzled as to why he’d need “occupation therapy” because he’d been retired for so long.

“I explained that OT is about living life to the fullest, participating in society and being safe,” Bondoc said. “You could say that our profession suffers from a poor naming convention.”

The occupational therapy class of 1989 poses in three rows outside of a red building

Memory lane

The occupational therapy class of 1983 poses outside the Sherman Avenue building.

While a name change is unlikely, more changes in OT education are on the immediate horizon. The Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education currently acknowledges both the master’s and the doctorate as points of entry for practice in OT. Bondoc believes that the doctorate will become the preferred entry point in the next five years. In response, the OT department approved its entry-level occupational therapy doctorate, which will admit its first class in May 2020. It is the first entry-level professional doctorate offered in Connecticut and will develop OT educators and practice leaders well versed in research and scholarship.

For Bondoc, the entry-level doctorate will cement Quinnipiac’s place as a prominent leader in OT education for many years to come.

“I think of our 50th year as a metaphorical springboard for the next 50 years, not just for OT education at Quinnipiac, but regionally and nationally,” he said.

It is difficult to imagine what the next 50 years will bring. Not long ago, prostheses were heavy and expensive to make, and it could take months for patients to receive them. Today, OTs can work with engineers and surgeons to craft a prosthetic hand in a few hours using 3D printers.

“The low-tech is so good now that we can make effective interim devices for patients until the real thing arrives,” Hartmann said.

Telehealth and tele-rehabilitation also make it possible for patients to receive OT wherever they live via telecommunication networks and the Internet. Hartmann sees it all as the future of care delivery and is confident that Quinnipiac’s OT students are more than ready for it.

“The embrace of technology has always been a thread running through this program, and I believe it will see us through whatever comes next,” Hartmann said.

Smith, meanwhile, is finalizing a capstone course exploring the role of OTs in helping previously incarcerated individuals reenter the community. Not even Griffin, who died in 2008 at the age of 84, could have imagined OTs and their students working in state prisons.

“We are nimble,” Smith said. “We are exemplars at being willing to change and serve the community’s needs as they are identified.”