When Airmen experience physical limitations, U.S. Air Force Occupational Therapists (OTs) do everything they can to help them return to duty. Alumna Capt. Kate Baker, OTR/L, CHT, transitioned her career from the private sector and commissioned as an officer in the Air Force in 2012, after graduating from the Program in Occupational Therapy with her master’s degree in 2010. This past November, she returned to the Program to share her experiences and answer questions about a military occupational therapy career with first- and second-year students. It is something she is happy to do, “because someone once answered those same questions for me.”
“While completing my undergraduate degree in liberal studies, I started working as a civilian for the U.S. Army as a receptionist. A co-worker was experiencing vision impairments, and the base hired an OT to assess her workspace. I was already thinking about a health-care career and became increasingly curious about occupational therapy,” Baker remembers. “Nearby Scott Air Force Base had an OT, so I called and asked if I could come in and speak with him about the Air Force and occupational therapy. He agreed, and after our conversation, I knew I had found my calling. He is still a prominent mentor for me to this day.”
She applied to Washington University and was accepted to the Program. Baker felt an instant connection to her classmates who shared her passion for occupational therapy and helping others. She completed her fieldwork at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC, and was hired soon after to work in the acute care, inpatient trauma and cardiothoracic rehabilitation units.
Duke is close in proximity to Fort Bragg, where Baker had several friends in the Army. They would share their experiences with her, and Baker started seriously thinking about commissioning. After talking to a medical recruiter, Baker decided to apply to the Air Force. She was commissioned and then completed basic training. Because of her experience at Duke, she was sent to Travis Air Force Base, CA, to work in acute care and cardiothoracic rehabilitation. While there, Baker’s career took another turn when a new hand surgeon was stationed at Travis and she started treating his surgical patients.
“Because of those cases, I became interested in hand therapy. I did some research and discovered a fellowship available to Air Force OTs to train at the Philadelphia Hand Center,” Baker says. “I spent six months in their occupational therapy program, and then another year training as a physician extender. After passing my boards for certification in hand therapy, I was stationed at my current assignment at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. I’ve been able to put my skills to good use here.”
At the Academy, Baker works with cadets and active duty service members alongside an Air Force hand surgeon. Following surgery, which Baker sometimes observes, she evaluates and delivers patient-centered rehabilitation services. In her practice, Baker often treats patients with repetitive strain and acute injuries. If she keeps seeing the same injuries repeatedly, Baker may go into the workplace to evaluate the situation through an OT lens.
“At one point, I kept having admissions of patients with digital injuries that occurred when loading heavy pallets onto our aircrafts. When I went to the airstrip to observe daily operations, I saw what was happening. The guidelines state they should wear gloves when loading, which they did until they got too hot,” Baker recalls. “It wasn’t anything they were doing on purpose; they had just gotten into the habit of taking their gloves off so they could move more quickly.” Following her assessment and recommendations, changes were made that would help prevent the injuries from reoccurring.
Baker mostly treats young and healthy Airmen on active duty whose jobs require them to perform at a very high level. Through task analysis of their occupations, Baker learned about the unique jobs the Airmen perform in the line of duty.
“I had a patient tell me that he was having trouble lifting his toolbox, so I started going down a path of the toolbox I was familiar with, which maybe weighs 30 pounds. After reviewing his job requirements, I discovered that he worked on C-5s, which are large military transport aircrafts. His toolbox weighs 120 pounds because of all the equipment he needs to work on the planes. That completely changed my approach,” Baker says. “I tell new recruits how important it is for them to fully understand the job of the airmen they are treating. If they aren’t familiar, I tell them to do the research and find out what it entails. That is the first step toward formulating a successful rehabilitation approach.”
As part of her duties, Baker is responsible for decisions that could impact the safety of her patient and their flight mates.
“One thing OTs are asked to do in the military that they rarely do in a civilian position is apply work restrictions. If I don’t think someone is safe to do their job, I have to initiate a profile process that removes them from full duty. This can keep them from being able to maintain flight status or even deploy, which in turn may affect their pay,” Baker says. “This not only impacts the airman, but also their team and overall mission readiness. It’s a responsibility that weighs heavy on me because I have to make the right decision for everyone involved.”
When describing her career to people who are interested in becoming an Air Force OT, Baker makes sure they understand both the opportunities and sacrifices of military service.
“As an OT on the outside, your main responsibility is to be an occupational therapist. That's your job title and it’s what you do. When you are commissioned into military service, you are an officer first and your primary job is to lead your Airmen. Though important, being an OT comes second,” Baker explains. “Also, there are only about 20 OTs in the Air Force, and we are spread out at medical facilities all over the world. Oftentimes you are the sole OT in the facility that you are assigned. It’s important to be resourceful and build a network of colleagues that you can consult with, even if they are geographically separated from your location.”
Baker is also honest about the commitments and sacrifices that come with a military career. “I want people to have realistic expectations going in. Moving is a part of what we do; you go where the Air Force needs you. That is a sacrifice you make, being flexible and accepting the unknown at times. You have the choice to make the most of every assignment, and you will grow from the experiences it brings. I have had the opportunity to do things I never thought I was capable of, and I’m a better person for it. It’s not the right decision for everyone, but it was the right decision for me. I love what I do.”
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