I Am Determined To Be an Occupational Therapist
Ashley Opp Hofmann
Photo at right: Heather Harttraft at her Elizabethtown College graduation with her mother, Barbara Harttraft.
“Getting my bachelor’s [degree] this year was absolutely huge,” declares occupational therapy student Heather Harttraft, who is now pursuing her master’s degree. The past several years have been challenging for Harttraft. Her mother, also an occupational therapist, has been fighting an increasingly difficult battle with inflammatory breast cancer since her diagnosis in 2002. But Harttraft pushed through her classes and coursework, graduating from Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, in May 2008, her mom proudly watching.
Harttraft’s mother, Barbara Harttraft, has generated a good deal of buzz herself as a highly visible and avid supporter of inflammatory breast cancer awareness, and the yogurt company Yoplait named her one of its 2008 champions. (Inflammatory breast cancer is nearly impossible to detect early because there often is no telltale lump and it typically is not detected by ultrasounds or mammograms.) But despite attending the same college and pursing the same career as her mom, Harttraft lives in nobody’s shadow. Sure, her mom has inspired her choices and shaped her approach to occupational therapy, but, as Harttraft emphasizes, “I had a desire to be an occupational therapist. I’m an independent person, and I chose Elizabethtown. I was the one who chose to pursue occupational therapy.”
As a little girl, Harttraft always knew she wanted to work in the medical field. However, “I knew that Heather and blood didn’t mix, so being a nurse or a doctor was completely out of the question,” she says. Having an occupational therapist for a mother showed Harttraft another realm of health care, “and it all came together at a young age,” she says. “All my friends wanted to be teachers, and I would say, ‘I want to be an occupational therapist.’”
Did those around her know what occupational therapy was? Not really. “A lot of times I gave them the answer, ‘they help people,’” Harttraft says. “At that age, I didn’t really understand it completely, but helping has always been a characteristic of mine. That ‘helping’ component is what occupational therapy is all about.”
When it came time to think about college, Harttraft visited lots of schools offering occupational therapy. “Of course I loved [Elizabethtown], but I had my mom saying, ‘I don’t want to limit you. You don’t have to go where I went. Keep looking,’” Harttraft recalls. She did, but after her third visit, Harttraft couldn’t deny that Elizabethtown just felt right.
“Now, after 4 years, I’ve had a great learning experience there. My choice to go to Elizabethtown was perfect,” Harttraft says. She found the occupational therapy faculty to be exceptionally accommodating and supportive, especially as her mother’s health worsened during her senior year. “They truly wanted to see me graduate,” she says.
Harttraft has received quite an education in the last several years, both in the classroom and outside of it. “I’ve been able to take what I’ve learned in my classes, clinicals, and fieldwork and I’ve applied so much of it to my own home life, making changes and adapting our home. Our extended Cape Cod [house] may be small and far from handicap accessible, but we’ve made some major adaptations, including installing a stair glide, an outdoor wheelchair lift, and, of course, rearranging a lot of the furniture so my mom’s wheelchair can get by. I never wanted to see it get like this, but I’m trying the best I can to make her as comfortable as possible in our house,” Harttraft says. “I’ve had to help and provide for my mom so much more, and that’s part of the occupational therapy profession: helping people to function with as much independence as they can. I’ve taken what I’ve learned and applied it to my mom and her situation, and really tried to make her quality of life as good as it can be, considering the circumstances we’re in.”
She has learned a lot in the last few years, but the most important thing is, “Don’t sweat the small stuff, as clichéd as that is,” Harttraft says. “Something stupid and small in my life doesn’t really matter when I think how much my mom is fighting for her own physical life. I can’t watch that and sweat the small things.”
Harttraft’s mother’s cancer has spread to other parts of her body, but Harttraft’s challenge of balancing her education with her personal obligations at home only drives her harder. Harttraft began her fieldwork this summer, working toward her future in occupational therapy. “I’m really just taking it one day at a time, and really living each day to its fullest. You still have to look ahead in your life. You have to. But at the same time, I can’t dwell on that future.”
Harttraft expects to earn her master’s degree in occupational therapy in summer 2009. She doesn’t expect it to be easy, but she’s no stranger to persevering through tough times. “This next year will be one more challenge,” she says, “but I’m determined to be an occupational therapist.”
For more information on inflammatory breast cancer:
See Barbara Harttraft’s video on educating others about inflammatory breast cancer. Visit www.yoplait.com and click on “Breast Cancer Initiative.” Click on “2008 Champions” to find Barbara Harttraft’s video.
Visit the Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) Research Foundation
Visit the The Inflammatory Breast Cancer Foundation