Albuquerque Therapy Team Uses Animals to Aid 7-year-old With Cerebral Palsy
Occupational Therapy Helps People of All Ages
Live Life To Its Fullest
April is Occupational Therapy Month and across the U.S., occupational therapy practitioners are continuing to explore unique ways to help clients Live Life To Its Fullest. Here is a success story:
Albuquerque, NM: Melissa Winkle, OTR/L, says some have compared her work to “Patch Adams.” And they might just be on to something.
At Dogwood Therapy Service, Inc., dogs, hedgehogs, guinea pigs, and turtle gardens, as well as client-to-client and student-led sessions, are all part of the occupational therapy program.
“I’ve combined my two loves: animals and occupational therapy—and if I can use them both to help others and motivate other occupational therapy practitioners, how can I stop?” Winkle, said, adding that the operation is part of an emerging field of practice: animal assisted intervention. “The goal is to use animal assisted intervention to help clients reach their goals through fun activities.”
Every day at Dogwood, barriers are broken.
With her 3-year-old golden retriever Maddie as her motivator, Eva Ferrell, 7, who has cerebral palsy (CP), has learned to lift her head, is working hard to strengthen her neck and postural muscles, is learning to vocalize more, purse her lips, and have full extension of her arms. When Eva was diagnosed with CP and a seizure disorder just months after birth, doctors predicted that her basic quality of life would only see a 10% improvement over her lifetime and that she would always have clenched fists, tight muscles, and be legally blind. However, occupational therapy has allowed Eva to learn to use her hands, reach with her arms, sit strong and tall, hone the speed of her fine motor skills, and even strengthen her sight.
Eva, who lives in Bend, Oregon, with parents Sean and Anne Ferrell and 5-year-old sister Sage, has been coming to Dogwood for therapy for the past 18 months. What began as a requirement to obtain her Assistance Dogs of the West pal Maddie has turned into productive therapy. In one exercise, Eva rolls a ball to Maddie. In another, she rolls herself down a ramp with Maddie following, which she thinks is hilarious, Winkle said. And the laughing is not the only benefit of the exercise.
“I got a call from Eva’s dad who was excited to report that she had fallen out of bed,” Winkle said. “This was huge because it means she rolled on her own.”
For the Ferrells, the therapy techniques that Winkle offers are tremendously helpful but yet simple enough to continue at home. A wooden spoon dipped in peanut butter transforms into an exercise to encourage gripping and reaching. A yoga ball next to an assistance dog becomes an opportunity to combine neck control with vision exercise. Laying with a dog becomes a muscle relaxing opportunity.
“Melissa has turned making a root beer float into an OT session,” Anne said, explaining that while sessions are typically scheduled to be 50 minutes long, the family will stay for hours on end if Eva is happy with what she’s doing. “We’re usually ready to go home before she is. But occupational therapy and Melissa are so fluid that Eva will work all day and even help other clients with their exercises while working on her own.”
The benefit of having an assistance dog both at home and in therapy is multi-faceted. Eva is getting important muscular, visual, and cognitive therapy through every-day interactions with Maddie and is also empowered by the feeling of taking care of her dog—she is responsible for feeding her twice a day and brushing her.
“Maddie’s treat dispenser has even become an occupational therapy tool because Eva needs to push a button to give her dog a treat. Feeding Maddie is another exercise because Eva has to hold a bowl in her lap and keep it there by using her hand and finger muscles and reacting to the push and pull of Maddie’s muzzle,” Anne said.
Anne says Maddie even acts as a social bridge between Eva and other people.
“It’s a great model. I wish more people were doing what Melissa is doing,” Sean said.
And while the trips to Albuquerque are no longer a requirement of keeping Maddie, the family of four has plans to return in May and again in August to further Eva’s therapy.
“We want the best optimal life for our daughter and if we have to travel to get it, that’s what we will do,” said Sean. “We want her to be active and independent and we think that can happen by using this momentum of creativity that occupational therapy offers.”
To read more about Eva’s journey to independence, visit the family’s blog at www.littlemustardseed.org.
Occupational therapy enables people of all ages and abilities to live life to its fullest by helping them to promote health, make lifestyle and environmental changes, and prevent — or live better with — injury, illness or disability. To interview Melissa Winkle or Sean & Anne Ferrell, call Media Relations Manager Katie Riley, 301-652-6611, ext. 2963 or e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Founded in 1917, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) represents the professional interests and concerns of more than 140,000 occupational therapists, assistants, and students nationwide. The Association educates the public and advances the profession of occupational therapy by providing resources, setting standards including accreditations, and serving as an advocate to improve health care. Based in Bethesda, Md., AOTA’s major programs and activities are directed toward promoting the professional development of its members and assuring consumer access to quality services so patients can maximize their individual potential. For more information, go to www.aota.org.