Newswise — Mary Ashley Galan-Gornal grasped the adaptive knife in her right hand, placed the red delicious apple securely in the vise, and sliced off a piece of the fruit.

Wearing a cervical collar and sitting at the kitchen table, Galan-Gornal worked through myriad exercises alongside fellow classmates in UNLV’s new occupational therapy doctoral program.

“If you’re working with a stroke patient, they don’t have the fine motor grasp that they once had prior to the accident happening,” she explained. “This can help get them back to where they used to be.”

That’s the cornerstone of occupational therapy: giving patients back their lives. 

It might sound like a broad definition, and it is. Occupational therapists work across the lifespan — from the NICU to palliative care and everywhere in between. 

But with UNLV’s new intensive and innovative three-year doctoral program in occupational therapy, housed in the department of brain health in the School of Integrated Health Sciences, students like Galan-Gornal are being trained to meet the needs of patients across the spectrum in Southern Nevada and around the Silver State. 

“I’m excited to be part of a program that is so diverse in specialties,” Galan-Gornal said. “We are growing the health care landscape right before our eyes, and I feel humbled and honored to be a part of the solution.”

The program, which opened in summer 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, is needed now more than ever as Nevada faces a shortage of licensed occupational therapists: approximately 1,200 for about 3.2 million residents.

Working in occupational therapy for nearly five decades, founding program director Donna Costa is intimately aware of the problem. And finding a solution is what drove her to UNLV, where she built the program from the ground up.

“Building up our occupational therapy workforce to meet the needs of Nevada residents is our next step in bolstering the state’s health care infrastructure,” she said. “Occupational therapy tends to be an unknown profession, but we fill a critical role in the healthcare continuum.”

Take COVID for example.

Patients are treated in the hospital under the care of physicians and nurses and improve enough to be discharged, but they still have challenges. They might continue to have respiratory or fatigue issues. Others might experience depression or cognitive challenges.

That’s where occupational therapy comes in.

“We’re going to help you get back on track,” Costa said. “Once you leave the hospital, what do you want to do with your life? What do you need to do? OT is very client-centered and very specific to the individual. You could look at 10 OTs, and see them doing 10 different things. There’s so much diversity and creativity available to students who are pursuing the field.”

And where UNLV students are learning these vital skills gives the program a unique twist. 

Headquartered in a home — complete with a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and laundry area — on Shadow Lane in the Las Vegas Medical District, the program gives students the opportunity to learn in a living lab of sorts.

They’re learning how to help patients move safely from a bed to the shower. Using adaptive utensils, they’re learning how to teach future patients to navigate a kitchen again. 

“When we first set up the program, I said we need a living environment, not a typical university lab,” Costa said. “The house is perfect for that. It simulates an actual living environment that a patient might be in.”

The home also features a pediatric mobility lab, where students are learning how to use a colorful ball pit to tune up a child’s sensory system. And on the other side of the home, a driving simulation system tests a patient’s reaction time to see if they’re ready to get back on the road.

“When you work with people, and you teach them something, and they’re able to take that and apply it to their own life — whether that’s helping them get a job, or they’re able to resume driving, or they’re able to finally get up out of bed — these are major breakthroughs,” said Costa. “We give people back their lives, which is incredibly gratifying.”

The 120-credit occupational therapy degree program is robust, featuring full-time summer internships, mini-clinicals throughout the year, and a community capstone project. The program’s curriculum also features a strong focus in the mental health of adults and children, owing to Nevada’s other shortage in mental health practitioners.

“Many people with psychiatric illness have cognitive deficits, and we try to remedy that,” Costa said. “In mental health, what we’re doing is trying to increase people’s level of functioning, whether that’s with learning how to balance a checkbook or how to navigate their communities and accessing the resources around them. We also teach people how to regulate their emotions, and how to improve their social skills.”

Armed to practice occupational therapy in all of these settings, UNLV’s first cohort of 36 students is set to graduate in spring 2023. The second cohort began their coursework in person on May 17. 

Combined, 70% of the students are Nevada residents.

Galan-Gornal is one of the “rookies” — as she affectionately calls members of the first cohort — who call Nevada home. 

She earned her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology at UNLV in 2018 and spent some time working as a therapy tech at Valley Hospital.

Fresh off a summer internship in the neurointensive care unit at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, and after spending a majority of the first year of the program online, Galan-Gornal is back in Vegas and excited to resume in-person learning at the house on Shadow Lane.

She’s still formulating what her capstone project will look like but knows that her “bread and butter” is working in a hospital setting on neurorestorative therapies for stroke patients.

“In a way, I feel like this is my calling,” she said.