The Gift of Humanity: Occupational Therapy at St. Joseph's

Occupational therapist and preceptor to more than 100 students, Clark Heard shares what is at the centre of the OT practice model and how it can be applied across all care areas.

‘You are capable. You have a unique and interesting potential as a human, and so do I.’ This is the philosophy that Clark Heard brings to his practice as an occupational therapist (OT), and role of preceptor at St. Joseph’s Southwest Centre for Forensic Mental Health Care. “When you approach care through this lens, a collective humanity is shared,” explains Clark.

Clark Heard (L) with former student Jared Scott (R) at Southwest Centre for Forensic Mental Health Care, where both work as occupational therapists.  

Many of us are familiar with the function of an OT as someone who helps to solve the problems that, due to illness or injury, interfere with a person’s ability to do the things that are important to them. What you may not know, is that spirituality is the overarching focus of the profession and in fact is embedded within the very center of the OT practice model. 

While spirituality is complex and difficult to define, because it means something different to everyone, Clark describes it within the OT discipline as “a collective humanity that connects us to one another and to our patients.” Clark adds that while the OT profession is outcome driven and science-based, “we’re also essentially talking about each individual’s goals to find what compels them and brings them meaning.” 

Even helping patients with simple self-care tasks, such as cooking and sharing a meal together, can be a meaningful experience. “It’s in the interactions that take place and the connections to memories or life experiences– spirituality is the sum of all of that. How and where it hits with each person however, is self-defined.”

For 20 years, spirituality and a sense of humanity have been among the core principles Clark has worked to instill within his patients, as well as each and every one of the more than 100 OT students who have fallen under his instruction.

“The gift in teaching is in sharing the human experience,” says Clark. “Students viewing patients as human beings means caring for each individual with respect and compassion- excellence comes out of that. This is one of my main goals as a preceptor and hopefully they take that with them into their practice.”

Jared Scott, OT within the Forensic Outreach Team, is one of many of Clark’s former students who did just that. Jared believes that spirituality is at the center of who each patient is, and attributes much of his core values about what it means to be a person-centred OT in the mental health care program, from his time with Clark. 

“By spirituality being at the center of our model, it essentially means focusing on the wholeness of the person- not just the illness or injury,” says Jared. He explains that while some individuals want to engage with a specific religion, others are looking to explore where they fit into the world, how they connect with others or are searching for answers to some of life’s tough questions, such as ‘who am I?’, ‘what brings meaning to me?’ or ‘do I matter?’. 

“Spirituality houses those big questions, the ones that touch on the humanity of us all. And, if you’re lucky, as you develop relationships with patients you’ll get to a place where they feel comfortable asking you some of those questions and discussing their personal, unique meanings.”

He stresses that “focusing on these areas can nourish the relationship between patient and caregiver and help them to define what they want to do or overcome, who they want to be and how, together, we can help them get there.”

When asked what he remembers about his time as one of Clark’s students, Jared says two things stand out. “From day one, the respect that Clark had for every student, staff member and patient, shone through- and I saw that same respect being mirrored back at him,” recalls Jared. “Secondly, I witnessed him connecting with each patient on a human level, demonstrating to me what the OT model really meant. Here was someone living that model.”

Clark firmly believes that if OTs can embrace the idea of collective humanity, it will inform their practice no matter what program or area they work in. “If my students learn to see others in this light, then I feel like I’ve done something good.”


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