Alumni Profile - Laura Suttinger

OT student doing research with child


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Alumni Profile: Laura Suttinger

“Where are you from? What do you do?” These are questions of curiosity, of courtesy, and of necessity. My name is Major Laura Suttinger, occupational therapist and commander for the 467th Medical Detachment CSC (Combat Stress Control) deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. We are an Army Reserve unit based out of Madison, WI. I have been in the military for almost 20 years and an OT for 14 years. Both of these realms offer me the opportunity to answer these questions in multiple contexts.

Knowing these simple questions represents the beginning of a relationship. It’s about understanding what you do or don’t have in common with a person or group, and how you can best work together. When my son was 3 months old, he was admitted to the hospital for an acute illness. This was the same hospital where I worked as an occupational therapist and although the staff was small, I didn’t know everyone. One person came in wearing hospital scrubs, nodded an acknowledgement, and proceeded to provide a respiratory treatment to my son. No introduction. No explanation of care. Needless to say, that relationship began poorly. We as occupational therapists are health care professionals; despite our intimate understanding of the wealth of OT’s benefits, many people do not know what we do. We have much to offer however it is essential to ensure a baseline understanding of the OT role with our clients -and their families if possible- to facilitate arriving at mutual goals. I ensure a proper introduction at the beginning of every therapist-client interaction, and then delve into understanding who that individual is and the circumstances of their situation i.e. “where they come from”.

I am fiercely proud of being an Army occupational therapist as part of a combat stress control unit. It evolved gradually, first starting as a medic on active duty, then transitioning to the Army Reserve while working towards my OTR degree at UW-Madison and finally commissioning as an officer upon graduation while assigned to the 467th CSC. I eventually had the opportunity to command this unit in 2008. CSCs have five different officers to provide the full spectrum of behavioral health care: psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, psychiatric nurse, and occupational therapist. The Army endorses any of these officers to be the commander if they have the appropriate rank and experience. Nonetheless, when I introduce myself as commander of the CSC to service members, they frequently ask if I am a psychiatrist or psychologist. I use this opportunity to give a quick history lesson of OT’s origins during WWI; unanimously people are interested to learn this and as a result have a clearer understanding of our role. The Army is the only branch of service to employ their occupational therapists in the behavioral health arena. We perfectly complement the unit’s mission to help service members adapt and overcome the combat and operational stressors that frequently occur with military duties.

My favorite OT question is “describe your typical day.” Therefore I’d like to share mine with you: An early morning wake-up allows me the opportunity to avoid the crowd in the bathroom that I share with about 40 females, as well as enjoying a walk to the dining facility with minimal traffic as I stroll along the side of the road. The quiet of our work area affords some uninterrupted time to read and relax before delving into the email traffic that has evolved overnight: the triage begins including to-dos, meetings, collecting data, and follow-ups. At that point the day becomes predictably unpredictable. Being a commander means being a CSC liaison to the other military units, ensuring the safety and well-being of our own soldiers, and making sure that internal operations are running smoothly. Therefore throughout the day I may: talk to a brigade surgeon or medical planner to determine if we are supporting their unit sufficiently, direct my staff to order supplies or schedule a flight for one of our teams, provide a briefing to my higher headquarters on our unit’s activities, or talk to one of our soldiers about how they are doing. Evenings include a stress-busting workout at the gym or more time to read. I look forward to Saturday and Sunday evenings when the 9.5 hour time difference allows me to talk to my family on Skype! This deployment has - out of necessity - challenged and increased my ability to be proactive, reactive, tolerant, humble, and resilient.

Once or twice per month I have flown out to see one of our eleven teams that are supporting troops through Southern and Western Afghanistan. I compare this to my experiences as an OT doing home safety evaluations: what people report in a clinical setting is one-dimensional whereas seeing somebody function in their typical environment provides a multi-dimensional understanding of their obstacles, support systems, and of course what they have been able to achieve and how they have been able to adapt to the challenges there. The Army has varying levels of “acceptable living and working” standard. Our CSC teams have shown incredible diligence and tenacity in order to establish space to live and work, create relationships with the troops in their area, and provide excellent care to those who are experiencing combat and operational stressors. They do their mission despite less than ideal conditions. We continually strive for improvement so that the next unit to follow can begin with a higher standard: a better tent or trailer, a functioning phone and computer in the office, and space to see more than one person at a time! Having seen them in their everyday environment makes it easier to assist them if they need support. I salute the work that all of our team members are doing, they are truly united and strong!

Over the years I have repeatedly answered the questions “Where am I from?” and “What do I do?” The responses have developed with time along with my roles; my soldier and OT skills have complemented each other throughout. When I was in basic training I never fathomed that someday I would command a CSC unit in Afghanistan. When I was in OT school I had no idea that eventually I would earn a master’s degree and work in a variety of OT settings. I challenge each of you to embrace your current roles and continually welcome opportunities for advocacy, leadership, and growth. You will be a richer and stronger person because of it.

- By Laura Suttinger

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