Therapist Helps Patients Regain Independence

January 07, 2020

Memorial Staff

Kim Ehrlich

As an occupational therapist at Memorial Rehabilitation Institute at Memorial Regional Hospital South, Kim Ehrlich works with patients who have suffered debilitating injuries and accidents.

Kim says she was drawn to the medical field in her college years after her grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and a friend was severely injured in a car accident.

"Between the two of them I saw a lot and thought a job in healthcare could be something I might want to do," she explains.

Kim has worked in the medical field for 30 years, 14 of them at Memorial Rehabilitation Institute, where she helps patients recover after strokes, spinal cord injuries, orthopedic injuries and multiple trauma.

She also helps patients who require rehabilitation after hip replacement, knee replacement or back surgery.

While physical therapy focuses on restoring muscle movement, occupational therapy is more holistic.

Occupational therapists work on the body as a whole to help patients get stronger, so they are physically able to care for themselves.

"Our goal at the end of the day is to get patients to perform their activities of daily living," Kim explains.

When patients are able to feed, dress, bathe and cook for themselves, their independence and dignity are restored. Kim also teaches family members how to care for loved ones who need assistance with some activities of daily living, such as showering or using the toilet. Kim says her work is done when patients can go home and be independent, or as close to it as possible.

Patient appointments are 90 minutes a day, every day, for a specified amount of time. Kim might work with a patient who has a back injury for ten days or spend up to a month with someone who has suffered a spinal cord injury. Since most people don't have elaborate, high-tech equipment at home, Kim focuses on teaching people how to care for themselves without any kind of fancy machinery.

"There's a matter of trust," she says. "You're trusting me to get you up when you can't on your own." To build that trust, Kim says she acts more like a friend to her patients and develops a good rapport with them.

Kim started in the medical field as a transcriber, “but I'm too loud," she jokes. She soon decided to try a position that was more people focused. She later worked for a plastic surgeon but didn't like the environment. Occupational therapy was the right fit.

“It’s very satisfying to help patients discover what they can do,” Kim says. “The most rewarding part of my job is experiencing a patient's happiness when they become stronger; seeing them go home and do so much more than they thought was possible.”

In addition to her job, Kim enjoys helping stray cats in need. Kim first became involved with stray cat care when she lived at a condo near the beach, where people would often dump stray cats.

The cat population multiplied fast, so she and other condo residents started a trap, neuter and release program to care for the neglected cats. While helping these feline friends, Kim fell in love more than a few times. "I ended up with nine cats and now I'm down to five – I had to buy a house because of them!" she laughs.