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Heidi Fischer: Combining Occupational Therapy with Research and Teaching

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When Heidi Fischer was growing up in western Illinois, her dad spent longs days working the family farm and her mother taught reading. But her mom’s life was frequently disrupted by illness–she had chronic kidney disease and went through numerous rounds of breast cancer treatment.  “I often pitched in and was drawn to learning about everything that was going on with her,” says Fischer, the middle of three children. “At a really young age, I felt drawn to a holistic approach to healthcare and figuring out how to help people get better.”

Fischer, OTD, is now doing exactly that as a Clinical Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) where she specializes in self-management for people with chronic conditions such as stroke and diabetes. Her position allows her to continue her clinical practice as an occupational therapist while training the next generation of clinicians in evidenced-based treatments. But her road there wasn’t the one she first expected.

At a really young age, I felt drawn to a holistic approach to healthcare and figuring out how to help people get better.

Heidi Fischer, OT

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As a college student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Fischer was thinking of applying to medical school so she took pre-med and psychology courses, believing the two fields were a good combination. Then she read a description of a master’s program in occupational therapy. The assortment of classes ranging from anatomy to theories of childhood development struck a chord with her and she changed her major to psychology. After she graduated, Fischer went straight into an occupational therapy master’s program at UIC.

Her first job after school was at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), which is now known as Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. She started in the orthopedic unit, progressed to the spinal cord injury team and ended up working with traumatic brain injury and stroke patients. She was intrigued by a posting for an occupational therapist to participate in a study being run by the Sensory Motor Performance Program at RIC. She applied and soon found herself working as a part-time researcher on topics ranging from self-management of arthritis to using machines to assist with recovering from paralysis after stroke. “I wanted to stay in the clinic but there were so many research opportunities I was excited about,” she recalls. “Some things were challenging–and I like a challenge–but I was still interacting with patients who were participating in the studies. I liked that piece as well.”

It is faculty like Heidi who truly make a difference.

Linda Ehrlich-Jones, RN, PhD

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Fischer also started teaching at RIC’s academy, which offered courses for therapists in specialized areas such as stroke. With the idea of doing more teaching, she reached out to her alma mater UIC. The school had an open faculty position in occupational therapy. After 14 years at RIC, Fischer became a full-time professor in 2013. She knew that CROR had partnered with some university programs to write summaries of measurement tools for the Rehabilitation Measures Database (RMD) and she contacted CROR Director Allen Heinemann, PhD, to ask if her students could participate. Her offer was quickly accepted and her students have since contributed numerous RMD entries. “It is awesome to see Heidi's support of the RMD and measurement in general, and the way she encourages her students to appreciate standardized assessments and their value in clinical care,” says CROR researcher Linda Ehrlich-Jones, RN, PhD, who oversees the RMD. “It is faculty like Heidi who truly make a difference.”

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