OT level I Fieldwork in Navajo Nation

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A group of second year Master’s of Occupational Therapy students from Cleveland State University and I went to New Mexico this past May.  The OT students used the experience to fulfill their final Level I Occupational Therapy fieldwork placement in the program.  They worked at the Northern Navajo Medical Center (NNMC) in Shiprock, NM.  NNMC is part of the Indian Health Service located on the Navajo Nation. The medical center serves over 80,000 Native Americans (mostly Navajo) from New Mexico, Arizona and Utah making it part of the largest health service unit for the Navajo people.

 Before the fieldwork

The students prepared for a year to complete this fieldwork; learning about the history and culture of Native Americans and Navajo Nation.

Finally in early May, the OT students and I arrived at Albuquerque Sunport International Airport with a nervous anticipation. Before arriving to the fieldwork site, we visited the Indian Pueblo Museum in Albuquerque;  looked at artifacts and learned about the different Pueblos in New Mexico.  Under the hot New Mexico sun, we were also able to watch a group of Pueblo Indians perform Native dances and listen to native songs played on a traditional flute.  During that first weekend, the students were able to do some exploring of Old Town, went up Sandia Peak (some by foot!), and rested and reflected before packing their things to leave for Shiprock.


On the way to Shiprock, we visited the Aztec Ruins and completed the  self-guided tour provided by the National Park Service.  The OT students expanded their appreciation for the history of the people and land in this part of the US.


Once in Shiprock, the occupational therapy students settled into their housing at the NNMC.  They prepared for their first day of fieldwork.  Jennifer Manning CHT, OTR/L was our wonderful collaborator and host for the week.  She gave us a tour of the hospital.   She also helped the OT students work on their observation, assessment, and client education skills.

fieldworkCompleting screenings as an occupational therapy Level I Fieldwork placement

Backs and Hands are for Life:  Protect yours!

The primary focus of the OT student’s fieldwork for the week was to complete screenings with community members and hospital employees. The screenings were completed to detect history of and risk for hand and back injuries.   As part of the screening, the OT students provided client-centered education.  The education and handouts focused on how to protect their joints during culturally relevant tasks.  These tasks included cooking (including making fry bread) and completing house and yard work. The handouts were developed by the OT students over the year.  Melissa Schossow, DPT reviewed the handouts.  She is a physical therapist of Navajo descent that works at the hospital (she also made our stay possible).  We are excited that the handouts will eventually be translated into Navajo, making them more accessible to the community!

Artwork by Stephen Valentine

OT students learning the whole time

During the week, we traveled to Window Rock (the capital of Navajo Nation) to visit the Navajo Nation Museum.  We had a wonderful guide, Ben Sorrell, who gave us a tour of the museum.  He was able to provide us a history of the Navajo people through artifacts and art, both old and new. The OT students had a number of questions about the Navajo people and he provided kind, thoughtful, and honest responses to all their questions.  Ben was great (and as a bonus, the museum is FREE!!!)!fieldwork

 Outside of the fieldwork day:  Occupational balance

In order to keep good occupational balance during the experience, the students were able to rest and explore many parts of the Four Corners area.  In all, the OT students visited Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park in Utah, Canyon of the Ancients in Colorado, Four Corners National Monument, and Canyon de Chelly in Arizona during their “off time”.

Good luck to Angela Fuentes, Erin Braunlich, Krista Donovan, Sydney Bauer, Bridgid Farrell, Angela Whitesel, Caitlin Higgins, and Katelyn Yarmus in all their future pursuits as OTs!

The OT Level I Fieldwork outcome

The OT students were exhausted by the end of the trip, which was balanced by feelings of accomplishment – they screened almost 200 individuals over the course of 5 working days!  In addition, they felt happy to be accepted so readily by the local community and be helpful to those who participated:  ninety eight percent of those who participated in the screening during the week of fieldwork found it beneficial and the majority of the participants provided other positive comments as well.

The students learned a lot about Navajo culture and life on the “rez” during their Level I occupational therapy fieldwork placement, they had fun and were able to reflect on their personal and professional skills.   When asked about their time spent on the reservation, they seemed to be most surprised by the isolation of the Navajo people – “there is really nothing to do there” and “they lack basic services” and  “so many of the [clients] drove more than 2 hours to get to the hospital!”.  They are hoping to use this experience to educate others about Native Americans, and specifically the Navajo people.



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