Forty years ago a letter arrived offering me a place on an occupational therapy diploma course at St Andrews School of Occupational Therapy, Northampton. It was an unconditional place so it didn’t matter that my A-level grades would turn out to be rubbish. I wrote a proper, handwritten letter to accept the place. No emails back then!
I was nearly 19 and I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. I was creative and wanted ‘to help people’, so my form tutor suggested a career in occupational therapy. I’d never heard of it. My parents wanted me to study something that led to a ‘proper job’ so in September 1977 off I went to Northampton. My Snoopy mug was to accompany me in what became a very well-travelled, cardboard box of possessions. My father, ever the pessimist, predicted that the mug would be broken by the end of the year. It was his way of expressing his anxiety about me leaving home. Today the mug is a little battered, but still in one piece. Sadly Dad passed away in 1985; I hope he would be proud that both me and the mug survived. The Snoopy motto is still a good one.
It really was a different age. We wore uniforms in school for the first year with fetching, pale blue capes. We actually loved our capes and went everywhere in them. We learnt lots of craft activities, including basket weaving with Mrs Mason, woodwork, weaving, sewing, and macramé. We had end of year exams in anatomy, physiology and psychology, but there was no research or critical appraisal. There was no theory of occupational therapy or occupational science. My placements took me into huge general hospitals like The London at Whitechapel which I loved and hated in equal measure. I also spent a lot of time in large Victorian asylums.
The waste paper bin that I made has travelled everywhere with me and is currently in my office in the Queen’s Building at the University of East Anglia. It was, and remains, wonky.
During my career I have seen the asylums close and become transformed into luxury housing. Or in the case of St Lawrence’s Hospital in Bodmin it has been completely demolished. I have seen constant change and reorganisation in health services and I remain constantly inspired by the resilience of NHS staff and the service users they work with.
Along the way I acquired a psychology degree and a Masters in Health Sciences. I spent 20 years in the NHS and, to date, I’ve been working in higher education for 17 years. I have worked in Florida, Cambridge, Cornwall and now in Norwich. I have been privileged to work with some incredible people and I’ve never stopped being challenged and learning new things. As each year goes by and life on this fragile planet becomes more challenging, my understanding of the potential of occupational therapy to make a difference to people’s lives grows. It has been a huge privilege and every day I learn something new.
The Elizabeth Casson rose celebrates the life of a pioneer of our profession. As I look forward to retiring from full time work I’m planning to reconnect with creative occupations, like gardening. I’ll probably be able to resist the urge to weave another wonky basket though!