Remembering Dr. Regina Abel

Reflecting on her career and impact on the Program and community

by Michele Berhorst  • November 12, 2021

Allison King, MD, PhD (left), and Regina Abel, PhD, worked together for 13 years in King's Child Health and Education Laboratory.

On August 20, the Program in Occupational Therapy held a memorial service in honor of Regina Abel, PhD, 70, who died June 15 in St. Louis following a heart attack. She joined the Program in Occupational Therapy at Washington University in 1999 as a postdoctoral fellow in the Developmental Neuropsychobiology Laboratory led by C. Robert Almli, PhD. For the next 22 years, Abel became a beloved colleague, instructor, mentor
and friend to all in the Program.

Academic aspirations

Abel grew up on a farm in Bolivar, Mo. She married young and had three children – Travis, Bryan and Sheila. Abel then became a single mom and worked a series of jobs to support her family, including managing a local Wal-Mart. "She sold window treatments. She sold paint. She knew how to fix almost anything. I was always in awe of the depth and breadth of her knowledge about things small and large. She could have easily run the whole store, but the men were in charge during that time. She dealt with the glass ceiling with dry humor," Allison King, PhD, MD, shares.

After raising her children, it was time for Abel to pursue her academic goals. At 40, she graduated magna cum laude from Missouri State University with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Abel then earned her doctorate in developmental psychobiology at Indiana University in 2000. Her studies in prenatal and early postnatal development led to her postdoctoral fellowship with Almli and a move to St. Louis. She was hired and eventually became a staff scientist in his lab. After Almli's retirement in 2007, Abel soon landed another job in the Program with King.

"The first time Regina came to talk to me, we immediately bonded. I wasn't exactly sure what her scientific experience was at that point, but she had good judgment, a great sense of humor and similar interests. Shortly thereafter, I asked her to join my Child Health and Education Laboratory," King recalls.

For the next 13 years, King and Abel worked on improving educational and functional outcomes for children with sickle cell disease or with brain tumors. They wrote grants, worked on papers and mentored students on their research projects. "We worked hand in glove.  Along the way, I was lucky to know Regina as a person, and we became close friends," King says.

Abel would often say she "lived her life backward" because she raised her family first before entering academia. It gave her a unique perspective on life, one she often shared with students. Her wit and wisdom helped them through uncertain or stressful times. Becoming faculty in 2017 and sharing her love of learning held special meaning for Abel. "Regina loved teaching. I never once heard her complain about it. Regina was a glass-half-full person. She loved interacting with our students. She was always patient and happy to support them in any way she could," King says. "She truly loved her job."

Animal assisted therapy

In her free time, Abel pursued her other passion – animal assisted therapy. Working with local organization Canine Helpers Allow More Possibilities (CHAMP) Assistance Dogs, she certified five of her dogs over the years to be therapy dogs. Her evenings and weekends were often spent visiting local hospitals, rehabilitation centers and other community settings. She met Suzanne Bell, MS, CTRS, at the Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis during one of her visits. Bell saw the special connection Abel and her therapy dog Kela made with patients.

"We had a patient who was experiencing the effects of a neurological condition that mirrored locked-in syndrome. She was learning to communicate with eye gaze and blinks using a cardboard poster with three lines of letters of the alphabet. I remember picking up the board one night and asking her, 'Is there anything else you need?' Using her eye gaze, she carefully spelled out K-E-L-A," Bell says. “I then discussed with her therapy team if we could ask Regina to consider visiting during the week when our patient had scheduled therapies. Of course, Regina about jumped through the phone with an exuberant, 'Yes, we'll be there!' For months, she and Kela came to work with our therapy team to improve this young woman's abilities and quality of life. This was the beginning of animal assisted therapy with our rehab therapy team; all of our therapists could sign up for times to work with any of their patients and a therapy dog team during planned respective therapy visits. Regina really impacted so many people with her passion and compassion for people and for dogs."

Inevitably, Abel's research interests expanded to animal assisted therapy. Nola Ewers, director of CHAMP's assistance dog program, recalls how Abel's interest in the human-animal connection benefited the organization and the community while providing scholarly experiences for students. "Regina designed, supervised and/or participated directly in and recruited occupational therapy student assistants for several research projects involving CHAMP service or therapy dogs. These included a student stress study, a study of men experiencing mental illness and homelessness, and a study of deaf/hard of hearing children reading to a dog instead of a person, to name a few," Ewers says.

However, it was Abel's study on the effects of service dog training on female offenders at a women's correctional facility in Vandalia, Mo., that left a lasting impression on Ewers and the organization.

"I would travel with Regina quarterly to talk with the women in the program. She treated everyone with the utmost respect. She never assumed to know anything about them or their experiences and listened to what they told her," Ewers says. "It was Regina who made it possible for CHAMP to receive a three-year grant for the program. She provided the data that measured the positive outcomes training the dogs had for the women. Several of her students contributed by conducting assessments for their research projects. Regina would light up with joy when she would talk about her students presenting their findings or publishing a paper. Her pride was palpable."

A legacy of kindness

Colleagues, friends and students openly shared their thoughts about Abel during her memorial service. They recalled funny stories, lighthearted moments and how she touched their lives. Abel was always there when people needed her – a student dealing with a personal loss, a colleague seeking advice, an organization seeking volunteers, a rescue group needing to transport dogs across states lines, and countless other ways she was "on-call" for others. Abel lived her life unabashedly herself and, in doing so, inspired those around her to do the same.

"Regina was the kindest soul around. She collected a tremendous group of people around her with like interests and caring hearts and attitudes. She had an interesting view of the world and was passionate about so much," says Lisa Tabor Connor, PhD, MSOT, OTR/L, associate dean and director of occupational therapy. "She was full of witticisms and saw the world through a lighthearted lens even though she had her fair share of difficult times. We will miss her immensely both as a person who was beloved by all and as a valuable member of our team."

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