Coming Full Circle

The Patient Becomes a Therapist

August 14, 2020
What lies at the heart of being a good therapist is the ability to put yourself in your patient's shoes and to know how they're feeling and to figure out ways to make that feeling better for them. I was in occupational therapy and physical therapy practically for my whole life. I was born with hydrocephalus. When I was 9 or 10 years old, I couldn't bathe myself and I couldn't walk.

I wasn't able to touch my thumb to my pinky. But my occupational therapist was able to help me do that using a lot of everyday items that we have in our house, like moving around pennies. That was an epiphany for me, that something that I wanted to fix was done using things you can find in your home. So I was like, whoa, I want to do this. I had a new passion to put that courage into people to just push through life no matter how hard it got.

The first thing that I do as a therapist is I instill a trust in them that they know that I know what they're going through. When they come and sit, my first question is, what's bothering you today? And more often than not, they relate it to an activity they can't do because of the pain that they're feeling. In about 15 seconds, I can figure out what my patient needs to do in order to complete that activity. There are several patients where I see that I'm like, oh my god, this is actually making a difference in their lives.

Touro inspired my career the most because it was there that I realized that, even when you think you're alone, there's always someone out there that's going to support you. A lot of my professors were cheerleaders for me. When we were in school, they always told us to do research-based treatment. And now when I'm in the field, I see how important that is. You always have to be looking for the answers that you sometimes don't have.

My long-term goal is to one day be running my own practice. I feel proud that I've gotten this far because when I think about where I was and where I am now, I'm like, oh, the patient actually turned into the therapist. I can't give up because I'm teaching other people to not give up. Even though it was a very difficult path, I got here.

Few people enter occupational therapy with the intricate knowledge of the field like Ariella Aghalarian.

Aghalarian, a triplet, was born with hydrocephalus, a condition where the brain is unable to drain excess cerebrospinal fluid. (The condition was once known as “water-on-the-brain.”) As part of her condition, Aghalarian had limitations in her movement including spasticity and right-side weakness along with chronic headaches.

“I was in occupational and physical therapy practically my entire life,” she said.  

When Aghalarian was ten, she woke up in excruciating pain and needed emergency surgery to put a shunt in her brain. Afterwards, Aghalarain needed to relearn basic skills like walking and bathing. By the time she was a university student in Queens College, Aghalarain said she felt worn-out by the endless hours of therapy. Perhaps more dauntingly, her insurance refused to cover more treatment sessions since they believed she could not improve any further. “I was unable to touch my thumb with each of my fingers,” recalled Aghalarian. “Using a can-opener with my right hand was impossible.”

On a lark, she joined a rehabilitation clinic as an aide. While there, she met a Touro-trained occupational therapist who worked with her using everyday objects during her break sessions. He asked her what her goals were and when she said using a can opener, he worked with her on exercises to help her accomplish that. Not only did she improve, but she also found a calling.

“It was an epiphany,” said Aghalarian. “I was able to fix this limitation I had with ordinary objects I found in my home… It made me realize that I wanted to put that courage into other people to help them push through their own limitations.”

The OT recommended his alma-mater to Aghalarian and she graduated in 2019.

“I think what lies at the heart of being a good therapist is putting yourself in a patients’ shoes and knowing how they’re feeling,” said Aghalarian. “I feel proud I’ve gotten this far. When I think about where I am now and where I was, I realize I’ve come full circle: the patient has become the therapist.”

In another nice bit of serendipity, Aghalarian recently became the managing occupational therapist in the rehabilitation clinic where she had her own occupational therapy.