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Occupational therapist fine tuning skills through AMEDDC&S graduate program

By David DeKunder | 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | Dec. 11, 2017

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas —

As an Army occupational therapist, Maj. Robin Tennekoon is inspired by the strength, courage and resiliency shown by the service members she provides care for on a daily basis at Brooke Army Medical Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston.

Working with active-duty members who have combat-related injuries and helping them steadily recover from those injuries to live a normal life again is a challenge Tennekoon looks forward to every day.

“The patients I have gotten to interact with have been amazing, just to see how resilient they are and that they are able to achieve their goals and return to living successful, independent lives,” Tennekoon said.

Tennekoon is a graduate student and fellow in the U.S. Army-Baylor University Doctor of Science in Occupational Therapy program at the U.S. Army Medical Department Center & School at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston.

The 18-month program focuses on behavioral health, rehabilitation of traumatic injuries in the upper extremity of the body, including the hand, arm and shoulder and utilizing research in the treatment of service members.

She treats active-duty members, veterans and dependents in both the inpatient behavioral health ward, outpatient clinic and residential treatment program at BAMC. The goal of the occupational therapy program is to steadily get the patients to do routine activities again on their own, such as bathing, dressing, writing or a favorite activity the patient enjoys doing.

“Occupational therapy is a very creative field where we use the patient’s interest to do therapy,” Tennekoon said. “If the patient likes to play the guitar, part of their therapy would be playing the guitar. That’s what drew me to become an occupational therapist.”

Tennekoon said being a student in the occupational therapy graduate program gives her access to information and research that can help improve care for her patients.

“I have learned in the program how to use evidence based research to guide treatment,” she said. “If there is a new technology or new therapy we can use, we institute that at the clinic so patients can benefit. The research justifies our treatment.”

As part of her graduate studies, Tennekoon is working on a study to measure the effects of acute pain, post-surgery pain that lasts in patients for three months, on active-duty members recovering from combat or work related injuries.

“I am looking at a self-reported measurement tool to understand how people experience acute pain,” she said. “The over-arching goal behind this study is to see if we can have an effect on improving the patient’s experience of acute pain and prevent chronic pain.”

Tennekoon said she is learning about the behavioral health component of occupational therapy by participating in the Combat and Operational Stress Control course, which has allowed her to work with patients with different types of injuries, including those with burns, amputations and to the upper body and arms.

Learning how to connect with the patient on a personal level is also important in occupational therapy treatment, said Tennekoon.

“It’s how I can hone my skills to be more effective as a clinician and almost using myself as a modality to help patients achieve their goals,” she said. “How I interact with the patient can be therapeutic.”

Tennekoon is an experienced Army occupational therapist with 10 years of service. Her service includes a deployment to Afghanistan where she treated Soldiers with symptoms of mild traumatic brain injury, or TBI, which range from a mild concussion to a severe head injury, as a company commander and in charge of a clinic while stationed in Germany.

“Tennekoon is very caring, she is very intuitive and her years of experience have helped her to understand what is most important for patient readiness,” said Lt. Col. Enrique Smith-Forbes, program director for the U.S. Army-Baylor University Doctor of Science in Occupational Therapy program. “She has learned from her past experiences and now she is fine tuning to get more advanced skills. It will make her both a better clinician and a better Soldier to serve in either war or in a garrison.”

When Tennekoon completes the graduate program in July 2018, she will be assigned to a duty location where she can generate evidence based research to support occupational therapy practice to benefit service members.

 “Working with a highly motivated population such as active-duty military allowed me to be a Soldier first and also support Soldiers by being an occupational therapist,” Tennekoon said.