A rewarding career in pediatric OT

“I want to take a moment to thank the university that completely prepared me for a successful future, and for developing me to become a confident, goal-driven, problem-solving professional who is making a difference in many communities.”

Those grateful words are from a letter that Carolyn Baum, PhD, OTR, FAOTA, received from alumna Heidi M. (Nemeth) Youtsler, MSOT ’94. A senior clinic manager at ABC Pediatric Therapy Network in Cincinnati, Ohio, Youtsler reflected on the career path that led her to a successful and rewarding practice in pediatric occupational therapy (OT).

“When I was 15 years old, my father had a stroke. I remember helping him around his apartment, buttoning his clothes and assisting him with various tasks so he could live independently. I knew then that helping people was something I wanted to do, but I didn’t know what OT was or that it was even a career option,” Youtsler recalls.

A native of St. Louis, Youtsler attended the University of Missouri-St. Louis for a year before transferring to Maryville University. At that time, Maryville University had a 3-2 agreement with Washington University, which allowed students to finish their achelor’s and master’s degrees within five and a half years. Knowing that she wanted to pursue a career in OT and stay in town, Youtsler applied and was admitted to the Program.

“Classes were held in the old building on Scott Avenue at that time. Dorothy Edwards, PhD, was my master’s project mentor and I recall doing our presentation on a comparison of coma scales in the neurological unit of Barnes-Jewish Hospital,” Youtsler says. “I remember being nervous during the ‘fieldwork lottery’ where we picked our sites. I knew I was going to be moving to Ohio so I had selected sites here. Luckily, I got both my fieldwork choices and was able to move right away.”

After graduation, Youtsler started working with adult populations, but after observing a few pediatric OT sessions she decided to work with children. She was a school-based OT before becoming a stay-at-home mom for a few years. While attending a child’s birthday party at ABC Pediatric Therapy Network, Youtsler felt a yearning to work in the collaborative, interprofessional environment she saw there.

“The company was happy to work with me and my career goals. They provided continuing education and other opportunities for me to grow as a clinical pediatric practitioner and as a manager. I work alongside physical therapists and speech-language pathologists on treatment teams to change the lives of children and their families every day,” Youtsler says.

In her practice, Youtsler sees a variety of clients, from infants to teenagers. She helps them and their families gain independence through play, self-help tasks and school-related skills by addressing deficiencies in fine motor skill development, feeding, dressing, hygiene, handwriting, behavior and sensory integration. She often uses speech generating devices as well as non-speech generating methods in her practice. Youtsler would like her pediatric patients who can benefit from high tech communication devices to have more access to the technology available.

“Insurance will often cover the larger, more popular communication devices, but they can sometimes be hard to carry and can’t be used functionally on the playground or other places children frequently go. I have a five-year-old client that is non-verbal and his mother was able to acquire an iPad mini with communication software only on it. It’s perfect for him because it is small and light-weight, which allows him to carry it in a sling as he interacts with his environment. He is using the iPad to initiate communications, which he wouldn’t be doing if he was given a larger, heavier device,” Youtsler says. 

It’s these small, but life-changing achievements her clients make that mean the most to Youtsler. Many of her families are on permanent schedules where she sees them every week for months or even years. She shares in their joy when children are able to do things they couldn’t before.

“I help a lot of families that have children with feeding issues and they hold a special place in my heart. Parents try so hard to convince someone that their child isn’t eating well and when they aren’t taken seriously, it is very emotional. I spend the first visit with the parents learning about their situation and when they realize I am listening to them, they feel such a sense of relief,” Youtsler shares. “As parents, we want to provide the basic needs for our children. When these families discharge from the program and the child is eating well, it is such a joyous moment both for them and for me.”

Youtsler is also proud to participate in many of her company’s community outreach programs.

“We hold a free bike clinic where families can work with therapists for a day to help their children learn how to ride a bike. We provide safety tips and answer questions the parents may have about helping their child be successful on a bike,” Youtsler explains. “During the holidays, we believe every child should experience Santa in their own way. Our ‘Sensory Santa’ event provides a sensory-friendly environment for children to visit Santa on their terms. They can visit with Santa and have a photo taken in the context that is comfortable for them.”

Youtsler attributes her personal and professional successes to the education she received in the Program. She is proud of how the field has grown over the past 20 years, and openly shares her experiences with high school and college students who observe her working with her team.

“There are so many more opportunities for OTs that weren’t there when I first entered the profession. When I speak with recent Program graduates, I know that they are receiving the same high-quality education I did and are well-prepared to practice in any setting they choose,” Youtsler says. “There are so many things I can do to help a family overcome whatever challenges they are facing and get to where they want to be. I’m thankful the Program accepted me all those years ago so I can make a difference in people’s lives today.”

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