By Colleen Flaherty
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD — Maj. Patrick Smock, a hand surgeon at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center, operates on one of the most complex and utilized parts of the body.
But surgery only takes patients so far, he said. The doctor relies on Darnall’s Occupational Therapy Clinic to help patients return to performing everyday tasks with ease.
“Occupational therapy can retrain and re-educate the nervous system,” said Smock. “Almost all of my patients interact with occupational therapists at some point. They kind of go hand in hand, no pun intended.”
Smock stopped by the clinic Thursday to visit its open house. The clinic opens once a year to the public during April, nationally designated as Occupational Therapy Awareness Month.
The open house was designed to highlight available services, said clinic chief Maj. Lorie Fike.
Between 900 and 1,100 patients, mostly soldiers, visit the clinic each month to help regain the ability to perform tasks necessary for work, leisure and everyday functions. Although many patients have hand injuries, some suffer from injuries to other parts of the forearm, including the wrist and elbow. Injuries stem from combat trauma to accidents to overuse.
Although military personnel tend to a have a good understanding of what occupational therapy can do for them, this area of medicine has been somewhat misunderstood, said Fike.
“Physical therapy helps patients recover normal range of motion and control after injury or surgery,” she said. “Occupational therapy goes beyond that and focuses on improving the patient’s functional abilities. We help them return to normal functioning, where they are able to do all the life skills they were able to do before their injury or surgery.”
Sgt. Chris Belieu, an occupational therapy assistant student completing his internship at Darnall, said that once a patient re-establishes range of motion in the affected body part, everything from sand and Silly Putty is used to re-establish fine motor skills and sensation.
While the course of therapy differs for each patient, Fike said games such as Mancala and Foosball are used alongside more traditional therapy tools to keep clinic time realistic and engaging.
Occupational therapists date back to World War I, when they were called reconstruction aides. Today, Army therapists work on the front lines and in hospitals around the world, helping soldiers care for themselves following injuries.
Capt. Leah Miller, now assigned to Darnall, recently returned from a deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where she helped establish an occupational therapy clinic to treat soldiers suffering from concussions in theater. After being tested in a variety of combat-readiness skills, such as traversing low walls wearing combat gear, soldiers who displayed symptoms of concussions were given several days to rest and recuperate rather than being flown out immediately to Germany or elsewhere, she said.
Brain injury patients also receive occupational therapy through Darnall’s Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, which opened in 2008.
Elizabeth Jennings, an occupational therapist attached to the brain injury clinic, said many of her patients’ difficulties with everyday tasks stem from memory loss. Consequently, she said, her therapy incorporates memory-related tasks, such as cooking safely in a live, in-clinic kitchen.
Darnall public affairs official Patricia Deal contributed to this report.