Saturday, March 2, 2013


I spent last summer working as an agricultural research assistant in Eastern Washington. I spent many hours sitting in solitude, ripping open plastic bags that contained soil samples from research projects conducted decades ago, and dumping them into a huge pit of organic matter. To liven things up I would occasionally be attacked by a flock of swallows who were none too pleased that I was hanging out and kicking up dust in their neighborhood. I had a lot of time to think while I was out dumping soil. Though it was not a job that I sought out to further my career in OT, it was a job that taught me a lot about life. It was at this job that I met Jason.

Jason used to be a pastor. As he tells it, he felt as though he was called from his pastoral role and into the realm of soil science. Now, it seems that most people get called the other direction: from their careers into a pastoral role. Jason admitted that he was a little confused, but felt that God was indeed calling him to seek training as a soil scientist. In blind faith, he followed. At the end of his term as a PhD student in soil science, he was still a little baffled as to what the plan was for his life. Then he got a job offer. The job he was offered was with an Evangelical organization that seeks to teach people in impoverished countries how to properly use their soils for maximum crop gain. When I talked to Jason about his opportunity he had been offered he responded with something like this (and I am paraphrasing here): “It is as if God called me to become a pastor until I had learned the skills He needed me to have to properly pastor people. Once I had those skills, God called me from it to hone my skills in soil science. It wasn’t until the very end that God then showed me the job He had taken years to prepare me for… using crop cultivation to reach people’s heart for Him. Most people give me confused looks when I tell them my past career history; I tell people I am bi-vocational.”

In listening to Jason’s story, something hit very close to home for me. I was trained as a landscape architect and worked as such for three years. I loved landscape architecture. It was a beautiful opportunity to be creative and design things. It was a perfect outlet for my creativity and passion to innovatively solve problems. Now, those that know me well know that I did not so much appreciate my job, but that had more to do with politics and management than design.

When I felt the nudge to “jump ship” on my career, I was perplexed over the pull I was feeling towards occupational therapy. “What, Lord? You really think I’d make it in the medical profession? I've been in the world of design for over five years now… what do I know about medicine? Besides, what institute of higher education would accept a design student into their occupational therapy program? And also, Lord, going back to school seems like a horrible plan. I very much dislike school.” I stalled. I argued with myself and with the call I was feeling. I tried to make my career work for me. And then I couldn't handle it anymore. I sent in my applications and signed up for prerequisite coursework. Three years later, I’m on the other side of the dreaded school work and looking out over the possibilities tucked into the landscape of my future. I am bi-vocational, but without a cool job offer… yet.

Last week this concept of being bi-vocational crept back into my head. Here’s how it happened. I hope this doesn’t get too confusing, but I’m going to back up again to my undergraduate training in landscape architecture. I think it will add clarity to the picture in the end. My undergrad thesis was a little unconventional (imagine that, me… being unconventional!). I argued that the recipe for steak Diane, the mouse created for computer use, Boeing’s sightless landing system, and the landscape surrounding the Seattle courthouse all had something in common and something that landscape architects could learn from. My professors looked at me as if I was crazy, dropped their heads into the hands in a mix of dismay and confusion when they heard my proposal, but let me carry on just the same. My thought was this: each concept had a problem that needed to be solved. Steak Diane is a fabulous meal if prepared properly but an infallible recipe is hard (or impossible) to come by. When computers switched from using command prompts to cursor interface there was no device to control the cursor. Planes, or pilots, were unable to reliably land in heavy fog without instruments to communicate with the ground and guide the plane to a safe landing. Last but not least, after the 9/11 attacks heightened security at municipal buildings became of utmost importance, how could the Seattle courthouse be kept safe from ground level terrorist attacks without the use of high walls and barbed wire? I sought to prove a connection between the design processes used to create each innovative solution. I interviewed a chef from America’s Test Kitchen regarding the creation of her foolproof recipe for Stake Diane. I scavenged up old archived design plans and interviews from the team that created the first mouse for Apple computers. I interviewed retired members of the research and design team for Boeing’s first sightless landing system. And I interviewed the design team that created the beautiful landscape around the Seattle courthouse. A long story short, from the information I gleaned, I gained a deeper understanding of the design process and how to think innovatively. I’m not sure if it gave me a stronger mind for design and “thinking outside the box,” but I’d like to think it helped.

So, back to my thoughts on being bi-vocational… It was Patient Zero’s fault. In the previous post I talked a little bit about making an adaptive device for him to put his socks on. The sock aid is a device I will not pretend to take credit for; it is certainly not my creative genius. They are readily available in the US and have many different designs. They are not readily available in India where resources and money are limited. There was my problem. I needed a low cost, easy to make, fairly reliable sock aid that my C6 spinal cord injury patient could use independently. My history of design bubbled up from some place deep in my head and I eagerly got innovative.

My first concept failed. I started using a two liter water bottle. I figured if it was cut right and the edges were properly guarded it would work like a charm. Fail. It wasn't strong enough and collapsed into a tiny roll of plastic that no one could possibly get on to their foot. Back to the drawing board. After much thought and an evening stroll with a friend, I came back with cardboard and a better design idea. Slowly but surely the device began to take a shape that looked like it might actually work. Only when I thought it was ready to be trialed by Patient Zero did I quit working to get a few hours of sleep. I loved being in a mindset where my two worlds collided. I was designing and changing lives! Bam! The sock aid had a few more adjustments and I’ve since added a few custom features for my Patient Zero.

The first successfully trialed version. (I don't have photos of the first plastic bottle version or the first cardboard version... the one that fell apart by the end of the first day of trials.)
The final version- bottom side view.
Another view of the sock aid.
Samson helped me come up with a way to get successful leverage from the bottom of the aid which really made pulling up the sock easier for Patient Zero. 

Re-purposed surgical tubing for grip and skin protection on the handles.
The final version!
Samson, one of the therapists I work with saw me working with, trialing and changing the device and soon began to offer his suggestions and advice. I could see something wake up in him and he too began to get creative. I found out that he has an incredible mind for this sort of creativity, but lacks someone with whom he can bounce ideas off of and someone who has the drive to make things happen here and now. At the end of the day, he gave me the Indian equivalent of an “Atta, girl” and expressed an interest in working with me to create more cost-effective adaptive equipment for other patients.

I’m still not sure that this is why I have been trained in two very different professions. My “call” doesn't seem as clear as Jason’s was, but I do know that last week I was able to use my training in both professions to change at least one life. I will never forget the smile on Patient Zero’s face as he donned his sock independently (ok, modified independently for my technical OT readers) for the first time since his injury. As I look to the future, I still don’t see a clear path. But as I look back, I’m excited that being bi-vocational holds the promise of being more of a benefit than being evidence of a strange identity crisis. 


  1. I've seen how you work up close and now knowing the story behind your awesome work, I can only respect you more
    - Patient Zero (now commenter zero I guess)

    1. Patient Zero, you just made my day. (But don't think that your sweet comment doesn't mean I'm going to go easy on you from here on out... we still have new goals to conquer!Hahaha! :) )

  2. I love this post, Em!!! You never cease to amaze and inspire me with your "out of the box" thinking and designing! It is very evident that you are right where God wants you to be!!!