Right Where We Want to Be
By Rebekah Reishus Allely, OTR/L
There are many health professionals who stumble into the world of burns, but those of us who choose to stay year after year have found that it is our passion. There is a sense that this is where we were meant to be.
Facing Challenges Together
The journey of recovery from a burn injury is long, slow, and multifaceted. Our patients’ challenges are diverse, and perhaps that is one of the aspects we love about being a therapist on a burn unit. A day’s work finds us engaged in our patients’ physical and emotional challenges. While there are similarities from one patient to the next, each one’s story and the challenges he or she face are unique to that individual.
As burn therapists, we have the privilege of walking alongside our patients as they face the difficult work of recovery. The scope of their issues is wide, the list of their challenges is long. Our patients deal with the pain of open wounds, the painful stretching of skin, the loss of independence, the fear of not knowing what lies ahead, the questioning of why this happened, the changes in body image, the feeling of being a victim, the change in their roles within the family, and the process of acceptance. They wonder how their loved ones will deal with their injury. They work hard to regain motion, strength, and independence and deal with the acceptance of scar. Being overwhelmed is completely understandable!
As therapists, we also have the challenge of developing a relationship in which we can lead patients through painful exercises, convince them to sleep in positions that are not comfortable and wear splints and pressure garments that are unpleasant, and let us massage skin that hurts. We ask them to walk when they have little strength, feed themselves when they’d rather be fed—all while they are looking at their skin and thinking that this is not what they want to look like.
The therapist-patient relationship can be our greatest challenge and our greatest joy. It is incredibly frustrating when we are unable to motivate patients and they are unable to engage in their own recovery. Likewise, it makes our day when we work with patients through painful exercises and see them steadily make gains toward independence.
Learning From Our Patients
We also learn so much from our patients. Once when talking with a burn survivor at Phoenix World Burn Congress I asked what advice she had for me as a burn therapist. This woman emphatically looked at me and said, “Don’t ever, ever give up on a patient!” She went on to tell her story of how noncompliant she was with her rehab, how depressed she became in the midst of her recovery, and how her world seemed completely dark. But eventually, she said, she found her way forward and is now so happy to be one who survived and is living a happy, meaningful life. I will never forget her words to me.
Being Part of a Team
I have been fortunate to work with an amazing team of health professionals at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, as well as with a dedicated group of firefighters in the DC Firefighter Burn Foundation. Through the generosity of the Burn Foundation and the support of MedStar we have partnered with the Phoenix Society to provide Phoenix SOAR peer support for our patients and image enhancement for those with pigment differences. We have the privilege of taking a group of patients and burn staff to Phoenix World Burn Congress each year. If I had to name an event that significantly changed my work as a burn therapist it would be, without question, the first time I attended Phoenix World Burn Congress. My eyes were opened to the long-term struggles of burn survivors and their ability to persevere. I learned new skills to better support them in their recovery. I saw many people, who had been through so much, who were happy to have had the care they had received and are now enjoying life.
It was at Phoenix WBC in Galveston, Texas, that the DC Firefighters met the staff from the Adaptive Sports Center in Crested Butte, Colorado, and we began a partnership—taking patients for a week of outdoor adventure in Colorado. This experience of stepping outside one’s comfort zone, being challenged both physically and mentally, has a profound ripple effect through a person’s life. Our burn team has come to appreciate the importance of leisure and recreation in our patients’ recovery. Returning to work is very valuable, but returning to the enjoyment of recreational activities is life-giving.
This is the beauty of being a burn therapist—we’re a member of a team who works incredibly hard to help people recover from the burn injuries that turned their lives upside down. We have the gift of making a difference in people’s lives and to learn from our patients’ strength and courage. This team we’re part of begins with our own burn units and fire departments, extends across the United States, and to countries as far away as Bangladesh. We’re part of a greater burn community that comprises health professionals, firefighters, burn survivors, the adaptive sports world, the Phoenix Society, and many, many supporters.
There really is nowhere else I would want to be.
Rebecca’s Advice to Patients
- Don’t hesitate to be honest with your therapist about what’s working well for you and what’s not.
- If you can’t tolerate a compression garment or a splint, talk about it so you can make adjustments or compromise on a wearing schedule.
- If you’re having trouble with your home exercise plan, let your therapist know—we will work with you to solve problems and make adjustments to improve your ability to exercise and meet your rehab goals.
Rebekah Reishus Allely earned a BA in mental health/human services from Fransciscan University and a BS in occupational therapy from Eastern Michigan University. Rebekah has worked at MedStar Washington Hospital Center as a burn rehab therapist for more than 25 years.