Why I decided to become an Occupational Therapist

Gemma Catton knew she wanted to become an Occupational Therapist after losing her mother to MND.

Posted : 07/09/2018

Gemma Catton (36) is a third-year occupational therapy student at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. Here she shares her personal experience of motor neurone disease (MND) and how this inspired her to change career. 

Occupational therapy provides support to people who experience difficulties doing the activities that matter to them.

Gemma's story

In August 2013 at the age of 60, my Mum received the devastating diagnosis of bulbar-onset Motor Neurone Disease.

Her symptoms began around 10 months earlier with a slight slurring of her speech and she found it was taking her longer to eat. As the disease progressed, my Mum completely lost the ability to talk and swallow and suffered widespread muscle wastage, with physical and respiratory weakness.

She became entirely dependent on alternative methods of communication and used a text-to-speech app on her iPad to "talk" for her. She experienced frightening choking episodes every day and suffered falls resulting in painful injuries as she became physically weaker.

It was incredibly hard and heartbreaking to watch somebody I love so much deteriorate and I can't even begin to imagine how it must have felt for my Mum. She deteriorated quickly in her last couple of weeks, becoming very breathless and exhausted. Just 17 months after her diagnosis, my wonderful Mum passed away peacefully at home with us on 24th January 2015.

Even through such a cruel and devastating illness, my Mum remained so positive and determined. Her personality and humour shone through and she truly was an inspiration to us all.

Not one to sit about feeling sorry for herself, or question "why me?", my Mum chose to live life to the full and maximise the time she had by focusing on what was important to her – having fun and spending time with the people she loved and who loved her. We enjoyed holidays together, outings to the cinema, theatre, concerts and rugby matches, and simply spending quality time together at home. We always were incredibly close and I treasure every minute of our lives together.

I will never forget the day we drove past an advertising billboard and my Mum began laughing and typing on her iPad to say, “I am a Crème Egg – here for a good time, not a long time!".

My Mum's greatest fear was completely losing her independence. The practical help, advice and strategies she received enabled her to achieve as much as she could for herself. They helped her to carry out activities she needed and wanted to do for herself for as long as possible. Often it was simple things that had a significant impact on my Mum’s independence and wellbeing, things like: a key turner, plug pulls, pen grips, adapted utensils, a modified toothbrush handle, and dressing aids such as a button hook.

Reflecting on the months after the loss of my Mum, I was proud of how I had helped her to lead a full life and to make the most of everyday, supporting her to overcome the new daily challenges she experienced and the adaptations she had to make as the disease progressed.

Returning to work after an extended period of absence, I felt unsettled, and my job of 8 years had lost all meaning, purpose and value for me. My interest in occupational therapy had been sparked and I had been inspired by my Mum and the outstanding person-centered care she received to change career.

I remained engaged with MND Scotland, volunteering at events plus undertaking awareness raising and fundraising activities. Meeting people affected by MND had strengthened my determination to begin a career in occupational therapy, confirming for me this was not an emotional reaction to my Mum's illness, and passing, but a desire to commit myself professionally to working together with people to overcome barriers and difficulties they face to enable them to lead satisfying and fulfilling lives.

So, in August 2016 I submitted my resignation at work and 4 weeks later I started the four-year BSc (Hons) Occupational Therapy course at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. Now half way through, I have loved every minute of the course and practice placement experiences and have not once regretted my decision to change career.

People have said I was brave to leave a fulltime permanent job to return to university and that it must have been a scary decision. I am not brave, my Mum was, and nothing is as scary as MND. My Mum continues to be a constant source of inspiration, motivation and guidance for me.

While I am sad she is not physically with me to share this journey towards becoming an Occupational Therapist, I know she will be pleased with the decision I have made and proud of what I am doing.


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Motor Neurone Disease is a rapidly progressing terminal illness, which stops signals from the brain reaching the muscles.

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