Coming Full Circle

The Patient Becomes a Therapist

August 14, 2020

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.