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OTD director building a legacy from scratch

Like many people, Melissa Sweetman didn’t know what occupational therapy was until her family needed it. During her freshman year at the College of Charleston, her grandfather had a stroke. The right side of his body was paralyzed – which was especially problematic since he was right-handed. Using a cane, he would drag the right side of his body from one room to the next. His speech was virtually unintelligible. “His life completely changed,” Sweetman says. “This was a man who built houses from the ground up by himself.”

Her grandparents moved from Florida to South Carolina to be near Sweetman and her family. That’s when Sweetman met an occupational therapist for the first time.

“She spent just as much time with us, as his family, as she did with him,” she says. “I thought, This is really cool. She showed us how to help him be part of our family and not just be stuck in a corner, how we could all still have that engagement and interaction. I thought, This is pretty special.”

Sweetman always knew she wanted to work in healthcare – she still has a picture of her as a 5-year-old dressed in a nurse’s outfit – but she had no idea what form it would take. Impressed by the care and ingenuity of the OT, Sweetman peppered her with questions, and soon Sweetman was applying to the Medical University of South Carolina, trying to get into their OT program.

More than a quarter-century later, now “Dr. Sweetman” is getting ready to welcome the first cohort of students into a Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) program she has built from the ground up. Opening its doors this month, Wingate’s OTD program will train an initial group of 36 future OTs.

In just under three years, they’ll join one of the fastest-growing job fields in the country. With healthcare reform constantly an issue in the United States, OTs play a big role in cutting costs and making patients’ lives better. They help patients complete “occupations” – many mundane, everyday tasks that most people take for granted but that can be serious hurdles for stroke victims, heart patients and people with a wide range of other conditions.

“Our goal is to keep people living independently in their preferred communities,” Sweetman says. “So, get them out of hospitals, get them out of nursing homes, get them out of places that require funding to keep them. Let’s give them quality of life, satisfaction and independence as much as they can in their own context.”

Sweetman built her program by envisioning the typical Wingate OTD graduate. What does she look like? What is she known for? What skills does she possess? (The use of the feminine pronoun is especially apt; nationwide, over 90 percent of OTs are female.)

For one thing, she wants them to be leaders. “We will have leadership spread throughout – servant leadership especially,” says Sweetman, who has a Ph.D. in leadership, in addition to a doctorate in OT. “It fits in perfectly with the school. It also fits in perfectly with the fact that we’re a serving profession. That’s how we view ourselves, as in service to our clients that we treat.”

She also wants her students to be strong scholars and writers, which is why Wingate’s OTD program will be one of the few in the country with a scholarly-writing course built into the curriculum.

Sweetman spent 17 years in clinical practice as an OT working in the field or in management. In 2012 she moved into academia, becoming the program director of the Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions’ post-professional OTD program.

But she’d never created a program from scratch, and that both excited and terrified her.

“My first probably six months on the job, I’d come in here and I’d say, ‘What have I done? What have I gotten myself into?’” says Sweetman, who’s been at Wingate since December of 2017. “And then the next day I’d be like, ‘I’ve got this!’”

And she does have it. In April she found out that the program had passed the first hurdle, earning partial accreditation from the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE), with zero areas of concern. Now, as she says, she and her staff just have to “work the plan.” Next up will be a self-assessment in November of 2020 that provides ACOTE with proof that the plan is working, followed by final accreditation in December of 2021.

When she was interviewing for the job, Sweetman was taken by Wingate’s motto: “Faith, Knowledge, Service.” She’s imparting knowledge, of course, and she wants her program to produce servant leaders. And faith? Well, that’s not in short supply. She, her faculty members and that first cohort have all exhibited faith in themselves, the program and Wingate.

“I asked students when we interviewed them, ‘Why Wingate?’” Sweetman says. “New program, no accreditation. It’s a huge risk for them to take. They all were super-excited about being part of something new. They want to help build the legacy this program leaves, want to be part of creating the program’s culture, want to help build from the ground up. That’s what the faculty have said too.”

Now the fun begins. Time to work the plan.