We take ourselves for granted everyday, performing the simplest to the most complicated tasks, each task requiring perfect coordination and communication between the brain and the other organs. So what happens when the human body loses its ability to function normally, and independently? Even basic tasks like getting  up in the morning or walking become impossible.

Charmi Shah, our next pathbreaker, Occupational Therapist,  works with patients to heal the body holistically by working on their motor skills, trying to restore the ability to move, to talk , to think, to learn, to speak and so on depending on the nature of the problem.

Charmi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the impact of Occupational therapy on the society by adding meaning, purpose and quality to lives of individuals who are deprived of their independence as a result of loss of function either due a disorder, accident or disease.

For students. Healthcare is not just about being healthy or protecting ourselves against diseases, its also about ensuring a good quality of life for individuals unable to lead a normal life !

Charmi, tell us about your initial years?

Hello All! I am Dr Charmi Shah. I am from a modest Gujarati family, and born and brought up in Mumbai. Growing up I always fancied the idea of being in the medical field, driven by the idea of saving lives. Yes!, I was clearly ambitious. But on the  contrary I always hated the idea of medicines and injections. Nevertheless, sometime during middle school I had decided I wanted to be a surgeon. I worked hard to get good grades through secondary and higher secondary school to achieve my aspirations.

Coming from a family of commerce and arts persons, I was never really forced to study. I was always encouraged to engage in extracurricular and creative activities. Hence I never really had any idea about the vastness of the medical field. Like every typical gujarati family we only knew about nurses, family physicians, dentist and surgeons. And I wanted to be one of them. We never really had Google or a computer in every household then.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I studied  Bachelor’s in Occupational Therapy from Seth G.S medical college and KEM hospital, Mumbai. It is a 4 year course followed by 6 months of internship. I did my masters in Occupational Therapy (Neurosciences) from the same college. The Master’s program is an additional 3 year program.

FACTS ABOUT OT: All Occupational therapy colleges in India fall under ALL INDIA OCCUPATIONAL THERAPIST ASSOCIATIONS (AIOTA), Academic Council (ACOT). 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

As I mentioned earlier, I never really had an idea about the vastness of the medical field, until I started preparing for higher secondary and medical entrance examinations. That’s when we started doing some research. We started calling distant relatives and friends who were in the medical field or related areas to know about the different career options in the medical field. 

With this came a lot of speculation. Some people told my parents, “You will have to pay a huge amount to make her a doctor, are you financially capable?” Some said “ She is a girl and medicine is not for her” and so on and so forth.

But I was determined and so were my parents. Since I already hated the idea of injections and medicines, I shortlisted Occupational therapy, Speech and Physiotherapy, which are also called Allied Health Professions, as the areas I would like to pursue. 

The medical admissions in Maharashtra (for Maharashtra University Of Health Sciences) is  a centralized process. Depending on my grades and the choices I had applied for (choice courtesy- handout booklets given while applying for the entrance test) , I secured a seat in the Occupational Therapy training school and centre, Seth G.S Medical College and KEM hospital, Mumbai.

And No!! My father really didn’t spend his entire savings in securing me a seat or getting me educated (Those are mere speculations about getting into healthcare).

FACTS about OT-

1.Occupational Therapy as a profession is nearly 100 yrs old.

2. The Occupational Therapy training school and Centre, Seth G.S Medical College and KEM Hospital , Mumbai is the First Occupational therapy school in Asia. It was founded in the year 1950.  

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Occupational therapy being such an old profession, there was barely any awareness about it. If I wouldn’t have been in it, frankly, I wouldn’t have known it even existed. 

Entering into the field, I had clearly underestimated what OCCUPATIONAL THERAPY could offer. With every passing year in the course of 4 yrs during my Bachelor’s degree (2008-2012) and 6 months of Internship (2012-13), my aspirations for saving lives and making a difference had deepened.

I started to understand that saving lives doesn’t always mean giving medical treatment or performing a surgery, it also meant the ability to add a function/ an occupation or simply adding to the quality of the life to be lived.

During the 4 years we were exposed to clinical postings right from the first year, from simply understanding how to take the medical history of a patient, studying the case, to gradually treating them under supervision in the final year. This was alongside the anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, biochemistry, psychology, orthopedics and medicine lectures , not to forget all the OT lectures to top the list. 

The Internship gave me the opportunity to get hands-on exposure to different cases. Though it was for a short duration of 6 months, there were rotational postings in peadiatrics, plastic-surgery, surgery, medicine, neurology, orthopaedics and community based rehabilitation units.

Along with the above, Occupational therapy also has a creative/ design side to it. This was an outlet for my creative mind, which gave me an additional boost. It was designing and fabrication of splints and orthosis which I always loved doing. The simplest way I can explain this is, imagine someone with a badly deformed hand. We make splints to either correct the deformity (sometimes it even prevents surgeries) or maintain it in a particular position to avoid a deformity, make it more functional and merely to decrease pain. 

The clinical experience that I had got during the four and a half years had already prepared me to jump into the arena, had made me a “Jack of All Trades” in my practice, giving me the ability to treat cases effectively and independently. However there was still a lot to learn, I did not want to settle down by just being the jack, I also wanted to be the “Master of All” and completing master’s program was the key. 

I chose to do my Master’s of Occupational Therapy in Neurosciences. It was a 3 yrs program. As fancy as it sounds, Neuroscience is such a vast area with the brain being the key component in controlling and managing the ability to move, to talk , to think, to learn, to speak and so on.

Did you know-There is an average of 100 billion neurons in a human brain and if we lined up all the neurons in our body it would be around 965 km long .

Imagine the amount of functions such a tiny mega structure is capable of doing with those numbers. Fascinating isn’t it!! I was clear on choosing Neurosciences. Neurosciences being allied to pediatrics, geriatrics as well as mental health, it just opens up to different areas, widening the scope of practice and giving the ability for holistic care in the true sense.

How did you get your first break?

I had actually started freelancing immediately post my Internship in the year 2013 and continued freelancing work while I was doing my Master’s as well. Along with freelancing I had also initially done an observership at a pediatric clinic where I started working part-time later, mainly treating kids with neuro-developmental conditions such as cerebral palsy. Pediatrics was the only option then as there were barely any Occupational Therapists practicing in other streams.

However, I didn’t wanted to restrict myself to pediatrics, so I started approaching different polyclinics in my neighbouring areas. Finally I could find a place to practice. This place never really had any OT practice earlier, so I had to start from scratch. Taking from the experiences while doing observership at the pediatric clinic and the limited exposure to dealing with cases beyond the clinical part, I started my practice here on the model of community based rehabilitation.Though it was not the first thing I did nor was it my first break, I am mentioning it here because it was different and this is something that I always wanted to do.

I worked there for nearly 5 years as an independent therapist.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

The biggest challenge I faced or rather every Occupational therapist faces is the lack of awareness about Occupational Therapy. At some places, the medical fraternity in itself is not much aware about how an Occupational Therapist works.

Another challenge was that majority of Occupational Therapy practices are focused on pediatrics. But I always believed that occupational therapy’s role is so much more than merely pediatrics (no offense there, I clearly love pediatrics and I too work with kids). I really wanted to work in areas beyond pediatrics as well for which there were almost no opportunities.

As they say, “when there are lack of opportunities you create one for yourself” and trust me when I say this, it was another  challenge altogether. Anyway “ALL is well that ENDS well”. Today I practice  occupational therapy in Neurology (in all -adult , pediatric, and geriatric areas), occasionally see Burns, Orthopaedics and Mental Health cases, treating them as holistically as possible. I also design and fabricate splints/orthosis.

Where do you work now? 

Currently I work as a Senior Occupational Therapist at Masina Hospital, Mumbai. I am the therapy lead for both Occupational therapy department  as well as the Masina Adoloscent and Child therapy unit. 

I also am volunteering as the Community Forum and Journal Club Lead for an online Occupational Therapy Platform called The Occupational Therapy Hub. It is an online community where some therapists like me, from around the world, are volunteering to create a space for sharing of knowledge, ideas, information, thoughts and queries related to OT on a global scale.

When you ask me to  describe a typical day, I would say it is difficult to describe. Each client/patient that walks in brings in a different story and a different vibe. Somedays, it becomes too overwhelming. Cases come to you ranging from twice or thrice to 6 days in a week, some for months and some for years altogether. It becomes overwhelming because you get physically, mentally and emotionally invested in such cases. But when I see them achieve that tiny little baby step towards their goal, it keeps me going.

Clearly what I love about my job is the ability to make a difference and the ability to add quality to life.

How does your work benefit the society? 

Amidst the current health situation around the world, most of us now understand the value of occupations. Occupation here doesn’t necessarily mean work/job. It means anything an individual does, from getting  up in the morning to going to bed at night. It could be a simple act of play for a child, leisure for an adult and even ability to pray for a senior. It gives meaning and purpose to our lives.

This is what we aim to achieve in Occupational Therapy, adding meaning and purpose to lives of individuals who are deprived of such occupations as a result of loss of function either due a disorder or disease.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

A specific?,well there are lots !! It was memorable when a child /patient started sitting independently at the age of 3 years. It was memorable when I saw the video of my 13 year old client/patient standing independently with crutch in one hand, balancing himself  near the kitchen platform for the first time in his life and making Maggi. It was memorable when a 30 year old paralyzed patient was able to hold the pen and write again.

The experiences are many and each one is memorable in its own way. They have sculpted me both professionally and personally.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Occupational therapy is a noble profession. My advice to students would be to not get disheartened due to  its lack of awareness. It is a thriving profession, with its importance getting recognized globally. Also, if you are a creative soul, it is going to provide you with an abundance of creative exposure during your clinical experiences.

When you do pursue it, Create your own path with the base that Occupational therapy provides you.

Future Plans?

My future plans are simple, I would want to continue doing what I am doing now and keep adding to my list of memorable experiences. 


Making a difference ,one life at a time!!

Bonus resources-