by Michele Berhorst • September 23, 2022
Stacy West-Bruce, OTD, MSW, OTR/L, demonstrates how to use a button hook dressing aid.
On July 14, 2022, Stacy West-Bruce, OTD, MSW, OTR/L, instructor in occupational therapy and medicine, was honored with the Program in Occupational Therapy’s Educator of the Year Award. West-Bruce, who joined the Program in May 2021, has become an integral part of the Program’s Education Division and its diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives related to education and practice. Her professional and personal experiences not only enrich her courses, but serve as the foundation for important discussions about race, gender and identity.
West-Bruce grew up in University City, a suburb of St. Louis City known for its close-knit community and diverse population. “I like to say I went to school with people who graduated and went to Harvard, people who went to prison, and everything in between,” West-Bruce shares. It was her high school science teacher, Tony Thomas, who steered her toward occupational therapy (OT). “When I told him I was thinking about becoming a physical therapist, he asked if I’d heard of OT. I said no, and he told me, ‘Well, go look it up.’”
She did and found that OT offered a holistic, relational approach to care. West-Bruce attended Tennessee State University (TSU), a historically Black college, where she pursued her bachelor’s degree in OT. Health issues following freshman year led her to transfer home to Saint Louis University (SLU) to continue her studies and earn her degree in 2000. “I was the first and only Black person in the program. It was a huge culture shock at first compared to TSU,” she admits. “During that time, SLU hired their first Black professor who was also a mental health occupational therapist. Her mentorship and guidance sparked my interest in working with that population.”
West-Bruce left St. Louis for Chicago and began her career at Rush Presbyterian Hospital working primarily with adults with psychiatric illness. After a while, she began to see several of her patients who had stabilized return to the hospital. She expanded her OT lens to population health. “Living in a big city like Chicago, I became aware of systemic problems. I started to wonder what was happening in the community to bring patients back. I also noticed things like how the same grocery chain was dramatically different in a predominately Black neighborhood in the south side versus in a west suburb. This awareness led me to pursue a master’s degree in social work so I could have the tools to address what I was seeing.”
She returned to St. Louis to attend the Brown School at Washington University for her graduate studies. During that time, West-Bruce discovered her passion for older adults while working in nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities and observing issues that population faced. “As a society, we don’t value our older adults very well or how important independence is to them. The reimbursement structure made it difficult to get them the services or support they needed. Whenever possible, I would advocate for my patients so they could live the lives they want and deserve to live.”
After graduating in 2004, West-Bruce worked a series of jobs in different settings in clinical, management and director roles. There were times when she was one of the few therapists of color on staff and experienced racism or bias from patients or colleagues. “You sometimes heard things you didn’t want to hear. It wasn’t always the result of the patient’s cognitive deficits or diagnosis either. Occupational therapists elevate patient needs, but that does not mean that we have to be treated poorly or disrespected. If a situation feels unsafe, it is okay to have someone else work with the patient or have another colleague join you.”
Eventually, it was the barriers to care, reimbursement issues and productivity expectations that led West-Bruce to shift her career focus to education. She returned to SLU and earned her doctorate in occupational therapy in 2016. West-Bruce then worked in the quality and safety department of a large health-care ministry and started a consulting business for OT student fieldwork experiences in community-based settings. She was also an adjunct professor at St. Louis Community College, Maryville University and SLU before joining the Program’s faculty.
As the course master for Professional Identity and Practice I, she teaches students the importance of aligning the ethics, standards and guidelines of the profession with their authentic selves. “They don’t need to fit into a mold, and that extends to the way they speak, their appearance, sexual orientation or gender identity. You bring who you are to the profession and create your own unique, professional identity.”
Bringing diversity to the OT profession requires challenging previously held beliefs and providing brave spaces in the classroom for open and honest dialog. “I understand that sometimes students are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, but this is the place to challenge themselves, dig in and do the hard work before they are in practice. These things matter and exist in all settings. We are not treating body parts; we treat people and populations. We all have a responsibility to listen, learn and do our part to make our profession diverse, equitable and inclusive for all.”
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