Rehabilitation Therapists’ Role in a Pediatric Environment

By Leesha Augustine, physical therapist; Hema Desai, speech language pathologist; Erin Keller, speech language pathologist; Adriana Rusch, occupational therapist; and Vicky Vu, occupational therapist at CHOC Children’s

The field of rehabilitation services includes a wide variety of opportunities including hospitals (where therapists can treat patients in any department), schools, and outpatient facilities including specialty facilities in the fields of mental health, sports medicine, wellness programs and rehabilitation/skilled nursing. Rehabilitation treatment can be provided for a variety of reasons throughout someone’s life from infancy through adulthood. The Rehabilitation Services team at CHOC Children’s includes physical therapists (PTs), occupational therapists (OTs), and speech-language pathologists (SLPs). Each therapy discipline also has licensed therapy assistants.

What training is required to work in pediatric rehabilitation services?

The therapist track for each discipline requires graduate school in order to be licensed by their respective national boards. The Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Program is a three-year post baccalaureate program. The traditional OT program is a two-year master’s degree, with the option to further specialized training with a two-year clinical doctorate (OTD). SLP programs are also a two-year master’s degree, along with completion of a nine-month clinical fellowship following graduation. The assistant track for each discipline require a two-year associate degree including a hands-on practicum and licensing exam.

What does a physical therapist do?

They have the opportunity to work with patients and their families to help them restore function to allow them to return to school, sports, playing with friends, work and family events.

After surgery, physical therapy played a big role in Sydney’s life. Her PT, Robin, is a two-time Olympic medalist and helped Sydney, a fellow athlete, connect with her treatment.

What does an occupational therapist do?

Occupational therapists help others participate in daily activities as independently and safely as possible. They also help children with sensory difficulties, fine motor skill delays, oral motor and feeding skill delays, and dressing difficulties.

Occupational therapists help others participate in daily activities as independently and safely as possible.

What does a speech language pathologist do?

The role of a SLP is to prevent, assess, diagnose and treat speech, language, social communication, cognitive-communication and feeding/swallowing disorders so that individuals can interact with others to the best of their ability.

Nicole, a speech therapist at CHOC, works with patients with feeding and swallowing disorders, speech delays, brain injuries, and vocal cord dysfunction.

Where would you find rehabilitation services in a hospital setting?

The depth and scope of Rehabilitation Services at CHOC Children’s Hospital is vast, with members of the department working within most service areas of the hospital, including: four specialized intensive care units, the hematology/oncology unit, the medical/surgical unit, and the Neuroscience Institute.

Members of the rehabilitation team provide developmental support for many infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). You may find a SLP or an OT coaching a parent on how to feed their baby for the first time, an OT making custom hand splints to help facilitate improved hand function, or a PT may provide specialized wound care  or assist a patient out of bed for the first time. The rehabilitation team will work with children and families in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) so that a parent can feel safe holding their child after a long-term intubation, a patient with a brain injury can say, “I love you” to his family, and play with his favorite toys.

Children with prolonged hospitalizations due to cancer treatment may receive rehabilitation therapy to encourage developmental skills as well as to recover from the effects of their illness and treatment. While they are admitted to the hospital, we work closely with them to help them regain function in a variety of areas: gross motor skills, fine motor skills, daily activities such as dressing themselves and taking steps, feeding and swallowing, eating and drinking safely, and being able to communicate with their friends and family.

As much as rehabilitation professionals love working with children and their families while they’re in the hospital, the primary goal of this team is to facilitate a safe discharge home and to enable our patients and families to participate in the activities that are most important to them.

Our Orange campus also has a multidisciplinary outpatient rehabilitation department including PT, OT, ST, hand specialist, feeding and wound care therapists. Here, our PTs, OTs and SLPs keep working with our patients after they are discharged from the hospital, as well as patients that are referred for pediatric specialty care from their pediatrician. You will also find PTs, OTs and SLPs working in our ambulatory care clinics, and serving as clinical instructors in their graduate and assistant programs.

No matter the setting for rehabilitation services, treatment goals always have the same common theme― helping kids enjoy doing the things they like best like riding a bike, drawing, or even being able to eat a cupcake!

Learn more about rehabilitation services at CHOC

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Speech and Language Pathology Empowers CHOC Patients

In honor of Better Speech & Hearing Month, we spoke to Nicole Paine, who has been an outpatient speech therapist at CHOC Children’s for 4 years, working with patients with feeding and swallowing disorders, speech delays, brain injuries, and vocal cord dysfunction. She also works in CHOC’s Early Developmental Assessment Center , a resource for families with children born early or who had difficulties at or shortly after birth, who are concerned about their child’s development. Speech and language pathology at CHOC helps children develop or improve their speech, language, memory and attention, breathing, and feeding and swallowing in a state-of-the-art rehabilitation center.

Q: Why did you want to become a speech therapist?

A: I have always had a passion for working with children and the special needs population. One of my previous jobs was a special education classroom assistant and one-on-one aide. I was able to see speech therapy firsthand with my student every week. I loved how functional, beneficial, and enjoyable it was for him. I asked his speech-language pathologist questions about the field, borrowed textbooks from her, and sought out additional observation time. I went forward with pursuing a post-baccalaureate degree in communicative disorders and eventually my master’s. Each class and internship I completed made me more confident that this was the field for me!

Q: What part of being a speech therapist are you most passionate about?

A: I love the individual time I get to spend with each patient and their family. It is so rewarding to work together as a team to overcome difficult issues like oral feeding aversions, behaviors, and communication difficulties. Being a part of patient progress is the best part of my job. Whether the progress is big or small, it is all about helping each child reach their best potential. I am also incredibly lucky to work with such a talented team of speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists  that share my same passion. I love the collaboration on multidisciplinary teams that takes place here at CHOC.

Q: What advice would you offer someone considering pursuing a career in speech therapy?

A: I would suggest interviewing and observing speech-language pathologists in action as much as possible. Our scope of practice is so broad that there are endless opportunities, therapy approaches, and settings to work in. Some college or graduate school programs will allow prospective students to sit in on a class or two. It doesn’t hurt to ask!

Q: What attracted you to CHOC?

A: While in graduate school I was lucky enough to be accepted into CHOC’s full-time outpatient internship program. I knew CHOC was well-respected for many reasons, but was finally able to see that first hand. For 12 weeks I observed, learned, and worked alongside my speech-language pathologist supervisor, treating patients and diagnoses of a wide variety. I lived and breathed what working at CHOC would be like. It was challenging, rewarding, and a ton of fun! There are endless learning opportunities here and I always felt supported by the rehabilitation services team.

Q: What else should people know about speech therapy?

A: People often think we exclusively treat articulation disorders, like making ‘r’ or ‘s’ sounds. We actually can treat a variety of different deficits including fluency (stuttering, cluttering), language (spoken and written), literacy, social skills, cognition (attention, memory, problem solving, reasoning), voice, resonance, auditory rehabilitation (speech delays due to hearing loss), feeding, swallowing, and breathing. It’s typical in a medical setting such as a children’s hospital for speech-language pathologists to treat many patients with feeding and swallowing disorders. Speech-language pathologists need specific education and specialized training by mentors and continuing education courses to work with such patients. We’re able to treat feeding and swallowing disorders in addition to speech because we have extensive knowledge of the mouth and throat anatomy and physiology.

Learn when to ask your pediatrician for a referral for speech or language therapy.

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