February

Healing Touch

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Speaking by phone from a small, cement building at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Capt. Ashley Welsh ’10 tries to explain why she fought to be deployed as an occupational therapist to the nation’s longest-running war at a time when troops were starting to come home.

“We all know we’re going home soon. I’m going to be the last occupational therapist in theater during this conflict,” Welsh says. “This is the last shot I had. A lot of civilians don’t understand that, but if you join the Army, a lot of us want to deploy.”

The reason, Welsh says, is the special bond shared by those who choose to serve in the military.

“In my world here, we’re all wearing the same uniform,” she says. “I know this sounds strange, and I never really got it before I joined the Army, but there’s definitely a sense of family. You signed up for this voluntary Army as well. You wear the same uniform as me, so I feel closer to you. And my patients feel like I understand more, I understand some of the things they’re going through because I’m also in that same Army.”

Welsh got her first glimpse of that world as a junior at Alvernia, during a trip to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., for a daylong symposium. The trip was led by her professor and mentor, Dr. Karen Cameron, associate professor of occupational therapy, and it changed Welsh’s life.

While visiting the hospital’s occupational therapy (OT) facilities, Welsh was struck by how motivated the wounded soldiers were to get back to what they do and how hard they worked. “It was very liberating to me,” Welsh recalls.

As soon as she got back to Alvernia, she began researching what it would take to be an Army OT. Along with her classmates, she went back to Walter Reed three or four more times with Dr. Cameron, and also went down a couple of times on her own to shadow Army OTs to get a real sense of what they do.

After graduating from Alvernia’s five-year OT program with her master’s degree, Welsh — with recommendations and support from Dr. Cameron and other Alvernia faculty and staff — was one of just 10 applicants accepted into the highly competitive U.S. Army Doctor of Science in Occupational Therapy Program created by the Army at Baylor University. The active duty program has a heavy research component and focuses on areas of importance to the Army, including amputee care, traumatic brain injury, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Welsh was commissioned into the Army when she entered the program in March 2011, and graduated with her doctorate 18 months later at the age of 25. She was deployed first to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and put in for deployment to Afghanistan the following year.

photo: Ashley WelshAt Bagram Airfield, Welsh is a member of the combat occupational stress unit, which also includes a social worker, psychologist and psychiatrist.

“What we do here is work with soldiers or service members experiencing some sort of stressors that are impeding their work, impeding them in completing their mission,” she says.

Welsh runs a four-day program that teaches coping skills, such as stress management, anger management, communications and goal setting. “My staff and I are doing what we can to make sure they are functionally able to complete their job,” she says.

When her Afghanistan deployment ends, Welsh’s duty will continue. She will serve her remaining year and a half of active duty in Germany, likely followed by another three years in the Reserves. But Welsh is focused on her current task, and will explore all of her future options once her commitment concludes.

In caring for wounded warriors, Welsh has been able to employ the “holistic approach” — treating a person’s emotional as well as physical needs — that first attracted her to the field of occupational therapy as a high school student.

Welsh became Alvernia’s first OT graduate to be commissioned as an Army OT, and recently helped guide Erin Stone ’13 through the process to become the second.

And she has remained in close contact with Dr. Cameron over the years. In the fall, Welsh Skyped into Dr. Cameron’s classroom to share her experiences with today’s OT students and help teach the section on treating wounded warriors.

“I definitely attribute all my success up to this point to Alvernia and the OT faculty there, specifically Dr. Cameron,” Welsh says.

PHOTO:
Ashley Welsh is flanked by Major Eden — the 528th Combat Operational Stress Control Unit’s therapy dog. Major Eden is the only therapy dog in Afghanistan. Her job is to boost morale and decrease stress for service members.

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