Graduate School Personal Statement

Note: I wrote this piece many years ago, and my thinking about limb differences and living with a disability has changed quite significantly during the intervening years. I discovered, for example, that overachieving was a compensation for my congenital hand difference, which has led to overuse syndrome. Learn about overuse syndrome and the overachiever trap.

In my personal statement for my graduate school application to the Boston School of Occupational Therapy at Tufts University, I explained how having OT as a child and later as a teen inspired my desire to pursue becoming an occupational therapist

Alba held out her hand and he squeezed it with his left one. Then she noticed that he was missing several fingers on his right hand, but he explained that he could play guitar anyway, because there is always a way to do what you want to do.

— Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits, 236

My preparation for a career in occupational therapy began when I received the first splint for my left hand, when I was in the third grade. It relieved the pain at the base of where the fourth metacarpal would be (I was born with a thumb but no digits) so that I could play, build, and grasp like normal nine year olds. I have worn the same kind every night to bed and a version of it to eat for many years now. My orthopedist, who comforted a saddened little girl, was quite a hero — the chief physician of the Boston Red Sox! I still have that tiny splint, lovingly crafted back when splinting materials were porous (so it got smelly really fast!).

I learned strategies early on that enabled me to function by relying primarily on my strong right arm and hand and secondarily on my left hand as a “helper.” I spent hours poring over Fred Sammons and AliMed catalogs, intrigued by products and gadgets that could facilitate one-handed activities like cutting paper, opening twist-off jars, and tying shoe laces.

An automobile accident seven years ago changed all of that. The clavicle fracture and whiplash in my neck healed incompletely; when I started college nine months later, my dominant right arm couldn’t withstand the added strain of college student activities. Just six weeks into my first year of college, I began to awaken with pain surging through my right arm and hand. Getting through each day was an overwhelming challenge, as I struggled with simple tasks like buttoning my shirt or zipping my jacket. Cutting meat and peeling oranges were impossible tasks. Because my lower back was in constant spasm, I couldn’t sit to read my college texts; my friends read aloud to me while I lay on my back. Attending lectures was a torturous experience (so no movies for a few years). I wore splints on my hands night and day; in fact, they were so much a part of my daily attire that I replaced the muted, boring tan industrial velcro straps with ones that matched my clothes!

By the end of my first year of college I could no longer type with my right hand, got incompletes in my courses (even though I was doing A work), and spent eight weeks of the summer with my right arm in a full cast. Unfortunately, the immobilization did not work. By the time I returned for my sophomore year of college, the myofascial pain that had been localized to my right arm had developed into a chronic all-over muscle pain syndrome. After another difficult year running from doctor to doctor and visiting OTs and PTs while simultaneously trying to lead a “normal” undergraduate life, I took a leave of absence from school in order to devote my time and energy to rehabilitation.

I remember thinking often during those difficult college days and the early years in rehabilitation: “How am I going to use this experience to help someone else?” During these years, I was given so much — dining hall staff carried my tray in the cafeteria, friends did my laundry, my mother bathed me when I had casts on my arms. Initially I felt like a burden to others, that I was all take and no give. But I learned from those who helped me that receiving is not the same as taking. Everyone must find a balance between the arm outstretched to give and the arm outstretched to receive. As limited as my circumstances may have been during these years of college, the support that was showered upon me enabled me to reach out to others in their difficulties.

When I returned to school, I expanded the efforts I initiated to meet my own particular needs into advocacy for services to meet the needs of other students with a range of disabilities — students with visual, mobility, and hearing impairments. In collaboration with a close friend, I helped create NETWORKS, an organization that matched community residents and Harvard-Radcliffe undergraduates with disabilities in recreational and non-academic pursuits, such as tandem bicycling, bookstore browsing, and shopping. Becoming increasingly involved in the projects of the University and of the disability community in Boston, I began to attend ADA (the Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance seminars, University access boards, lectures on law and disability, and recreational activities of Partners for Disabled Youth. “You have an interesting perspective on the world,” my friends commented, as I would discuss the minutiae of building codes, curb cuts, and voice-activated computer software. While contemplating graduate work in political philosophy, I discovered a deep and abiding interest in, and excitement about, lever door handles, rocker light switches, and paddle faucets.

I have gained so much in these seven years: coping mechanisms for dealing with the myofascial pain in my right shoulder blade and arm (through muscle relaxation, heat therapy, and massage); techniques for confronting the challenges of living with a chronic illness (through rest/activity cycling, visualization, and aerobic exercise); the ability to ask for help; a support network of wonderfully giving human beings who are delighted to respond to my requests; experiences of having successfully advocated for access to buildings with physical barriers; the ability to maintain an inner strength despite being asked repeatedly about my obvious physical differences; the confidence and courage to appear vulnerable and different from others; the desire and means to reach out to others; the creativity and resourcefulness to adapt to new situations; the passion to live a full, rich life despite disability, pain, and fatigue.

During these years, I have had the opportunity to work closely with peers, assistants, administrators, rehabilitation specialists, and fellow individuals with disabilities and chronic illnesses. These connections not only have enriched my life but also have inspired me to pursue a career that will enable me to work with colleagues and clients in an on-going, care-giving context. Having spent the last several years co-counseling peers in various groups and individual meetings, I eagerly await leading groups and facilitating discussions.

My recovery process has prepared me well for formal training in occupational therapy. At Tufts, I expect to learn the clinical reasoning skills that are vital to working with patients. My goals for the years ahead are clear: to emulate those care providers I have encountered who understand the complex connections between physical rehabilitation and emotional healing; to share the solution-oriented approach that informs my life; and to inspire others to master their physical impediments so that they, too, can know that “there is always a way to do what you want to do.”

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