College of Health Professions grad spreads OT knowledge in South Carolina and abroad

May 13, 2021
a smiling woman in a blouse stands with a soccer ball on a soccer field
Melissa Turpin played soccer as an undergraduate at Presbyterian College. She's returned to PC to help launch its occupational therapy program. Photos provided

Melissa Turpin has done a little bit of everything as an occupational therapist – worked with babies and toddlers in their homes, patients in a hospital, children at school and residents in nursing homes.

Now, as a member of the first cohort to graduate with a Post Professional Occupational Therapy Doctorate from the College of Health Professions at the Medical University of South Carolina, she’ll be able to share her knowledge and skills with people who are entering the career field. She is serving as both an instructor and the admissions director for the new occupational therapy program at Presbyterian College, her undergraduate alma mater.

“It's been fun. It's been great to be on the ground level of a program,” she said. “I went to PC, and the motto is ‘While we live, we serve,’ so I'm super excited and passionate about that.”

There will be plenty of opportunities for OT students at PC to serve, she said, as the program will develop opportunities that help them to understand occupational therapy as well as population health.

She’s also looking forward to expanding upon her capstone project, in which she provided some OT training to teachers at a special-needs school in Nicaragua. COVID-19 curtailed her initial plans, so she’s hopeful that she will be able to travel there and work with the teachers in person.

But first comes graduation.

a woman works with a young toddler laying on a table 
Melissa Turpin has been the therapy lead on several trips to Nicaragua. She hopes to return when the pandemic eases.

Turpin is one of 12 students in this first cohort. Over the course of five semesters, the students have explored each of the four possible tracks – leadership, teaching, population health and advanced clinical practice – and produced their own unique capstone projects.

The program was developed in response to feedback from MUSC alumni who saw a need within the profession, said Michelle Woodbury, Ph.D., director of the PPOTD program.

The field of occupational therapy is expected to grow by 16% between 2019 and 2029, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than the average job growth of 4%. Yet many people remain unsure of what occupational therapy is. Turpin herself began her undergraduate work thinking she wanted to be a physical therapist; it wasn’t until the summer before her senior year that she was exposed to occupational therapy when she worked as a rehab aide.

Occupational therapy is a holistic profession that seeks to increase independence, safety and function in all areas of the patient’s life, Turpin said. “Occupation” could mean the patient’s work, but really it refers to anything that occupies the patient’s time. For children, that’s usually play and school. For adults, it could be cooking, cleaning and basic hygiene.

Turpin said she fell in love with the profession during that summer before her senior year. She loved how creative the therapists could be in their interventions and how they considered the whole person. Since she had started college with the intention of going into physical therapy, with a few tweaks she was able to change course. After graduating from PC, she began her entry-level OT training at MUSC.

After her first graduation from MUSC, she began her OT career at Dorchester School District 2, where she worked both with individual students and as a consultant for teachers struggling with students’ behavioral issues or those who had sensory issues. On weekends and during summers, she worked at a skilled nursing facility.

She also did some work at Summerville Medical Center, working with both adult and pediatric patients. Occupational therapists are especially important in discharge planning, she said, because they consider such things as whether the patient will be able to bathe, navigate stairs in the home or cook and clean. She cited a study that found that additional spending on occupational therapy was the only hospital spending category that resulted in reduced readmission rates for patients with heart failure or who’d had heart attacks or pneumonia.

In 2015, after a friend who was an early intervention specialist told her how desperately they needed occupational therapists who would work in children’s homes, particularly children under the age of 3 who qualified for the state’s BabyNet early intervention program, she launched her own business.

“I would bring mom in or bring dad in, and they would be an active participant in the session. I could explain why I was doing everything that I was doing. Why are we working on this skill? Well, what we’re doing now leads to being able to eat or being able to brush teeth or being able to write.”
Melissa Turpin

She loved working in homes because the whole family would become involved in the child’s therapy. And by having the parents involved in the sessions, she could instruct the parents on activities to do when she wasn’t there.

“I would bring mom in or bring dad in, and they would be an active participant in the session,” she said. “I could explain why I was doing everything that I was doing. Why are we working on this skill? Well, what we’re doing now leads to being able to eat or being able to brush teeth or being able to write.”

Turpin eventually closed the business after she and her husband, Rick, adopted their son Liam from China. Liam joined their biological son, James. Only three months apart in age, the boys are “virtual twins,” and although they didn’t meet until they were 4 years old, “you would never know that they’ve ever not been together. They're so close,” Turpin said. However, Liam has special needs, and in the immediate wake of the adoption, Turpin found she couldn’t maintain a work-life balance. She transferred her clients to another occupational therapist in town and quit the business – but she couldn’t permanently quit OT.

2015 was also a pivotal year because it was the first time she went on a medical mission trip to Nicaragua.

“The profession of OT really doesn’t exist in Nicaragua,” she said.

Turpin has been on five trips so far, each time serving as the therapy lead. From the first trip, they would see children with developmental delays, autism, cerebral palsy and other conditions. Attitudes toward people with special needs are slowing changing in Nicaragua, but there remains a dearth of resources for children and families. These trips became the driving force for Turpin to go back to school. She felt that the additional education would give her a platform to launch a project to help these children.

From this, her capstone project was born. Turpin found an organization, FNE International, that operates a school for children with special needs. The group’s website noted that it was interested in assistance with professional development opportunities for its teachers, so Turpin reached out. From there, she sent a needs assessment survey to the school to find out what areas the teachers wanted more information about and then developed three learning modules based on their feedback.

The modules focused on universal design for learning; function of behavior and managing difficult behavior in the classroom; and the neuromuscular system and simple interventions that the teachers could do, like stretching, yoga and developmental positioning. Because the school doesn’t have a therapist, the interventions she provided were all things that a classroom teacher could easily implement.

Although her capstone project went well, Turpin wants to expand it. Because of the pandemic, she couldn’t go there in person to train the teachers. Instead, she had to train an individual from FNE International, who in turn had to obtain special permission to go to the school. The training was eye-opening for the teachers there, Turpin said.

“Their knowledge actually increased, but their confidence decreased. I feel like they didn’t know what they didn’t know,” she said. She hopes that by working hands on with the teachers and showing them how to put theory into practice, she’ll be able to impart knowledge and boost their confidence. She also has some ideas for utilizing technology in future trainings.

And, of course, she’s excited about her work at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina. She was still living in Summerville when this dream job popped up.

“Of course, it involved uprooting my family, moving two, three hours away. My husband’s like, ‘Just apply for it. Just do it and see what happens.’ And here we are,” she said.

About the Author

Leslie Cantu
MUSC Catalyst News

Keywords: Education