Emma Gee, Occupational Therapist and Stroke Survivor

Episode 9 is brought to you by Emma Gee. Emma is an Occupational Therapist and stroke survivor who has rare insight into life as a patient and a therapist. Emma is a compelling example of what it takes to step into another’s shoes and truly bounce back to life.

Speaker You’re listening to Allied Health Podcast, talking all things Allied Health with your hosts, Danielle Weedon, physiotherapist and Clare Jones, occupational therapist.

Danielle Weedon Today, we’re joined by Emma Gee, an occupational therapist and stroke survivor who has rare insight into life as a patient and as a therapist. Emma is a compelling example of what it takes to step into another’s shoes and truly bounce back to life.

Clare Jones Emma is one of Australia’s acclaimed inspirational speakers offering her thoughts and solutions on resilience and person centered care. Emma’s services include keynote presentations, workshops and consulting. Emma is also a published author, having written her own memoir titled Reinventing Emma.

Danielle Weedon Thank you for joining us, Emma.

Emma Gee Thank you.

Danielle Weedon Can you tell us a bit about your healthcare background and your story of surviving a stroke and recovery?

Emma Gee Yeah, so I was working full time as an Occupational Therapist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and I was living independently renting with friends. I was a marathon runner, so I was a very active person and long story short, I was admitted to hospital with a running injury, and they found a malformation in my brain stem. So it was a congenital conformity and quite risky where it was located. I decided to have elective surgery and it was a really risky procedure. Unfortunately, the surgeon made a mistake and accidentally cut the AVM in half and the residual AVM bled and I had a stroke and went into a coma. So that for me was a very confronting experience, being a really active person, a health provider, and for me, a recipient of the services that I provided. And I remember waking from that coma – I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t swallow, I couldn’t blink, I couldn’t walk properly. I was very trapped. And so, yeah, that was the beginning of my life as a person with a disability and underwent months of rehabilitation. Relearning to do everything again. And really, I guess as a therapist, I really struggled with building a new identity and merely being the patient and not the therapist. And so I took on, as I was so physically trapped, more of an observational role throughout my recovery, which extends I guess is ongoing till today. But 17 years later, I began my own speaking business where I run workshops and keynotes and go to conferences and travel. And now I’m mentoring, really to share my experience and insight on what I could draw on from my own experience and my own observations. And then I began my own book where I could share my story with others. So that is, in a nutshell, what I’ve gone through.

Clare Jones Emma that’s a very unique story. Being an allied health professional yourself and you were working in neuro and with stroke patients, is that right?

Emma Gee Yes, I was working in rehabilitation with stroke survivors themselves. When I reflect on my experience, I was fortunate I could put into practice what I learned as an Occupational Therapist for my own recovery. And to this day, you know, I have so many deficits. I’m legally blind in one eye. I wear glasses, I’m on a walking frame and I have chronic pain. So a lot of what I learned as a therapist I guess has enabled me to adapt and mitigate a lot of the obstacles I had to encounter. Yeah, so it’s ongoing.

Danielle Weedon Emma, do you think being a therapist and having trained as an OT has helped you in your insight into your brain injury? Was it helpful in your recovery?

Emma Gee Initially yea, as it was quite confronting for myself and those around me. I didn’t feel the confidence or had that lived experience of being out of my reality realm to, I guess, truly practice what I preached. But I think my background as an OT really shaped how I could apply myself and adapt, and also and further understand how others really deliver their services and their intentions around how they do things. And I could understand their mentality, but I also suddenly realized from my own lived experience, the huge discrimination that exists in society and in the health sector, particularly when delivering services and how we can really draw on that person to shape their recovery.

Clare Jones And that’s a beautiful segway into my next question. You’ve written your own book titled Reinventing Emma, which is an amazing read. Can you tell our therapy listeners a bit about the book and why in particular it’s a valuable read for any therapist?

Emma Gee Yes. When I started this, as I said before I was very trapped, and I couldn’t speak so I observed a lot that was going on around me for years. And then eight years later, when I was emotionally able to really revisit those diary entries – which I’d really written to unleash what was trapped inside my body – I decided to really go back and sift through and collate my book. I wanted to educate other people in delivering services, but also, I guess, empower those that are in a difficult circumstance themselves. So it was my way of really drawing on what I’d experienced. I hope that it provides other therapists the ability to see things through a patient lens. And that hopefully educates them on things that they perhaps can’t see, either unintentionally or even overlooked. And I think it also gives therapists and other readers a perspective on what others go through and the challenges of a stroke. I guess in my book I attempted to include other perspectives, whether it was my twin sister or my doctor, to really give that holistic approach.

Clare Jones I was going to say, Emma, it’s very easy in the hospital and rehab environment to get quite focused on treatment pathways and protocols and length of stay even and, and forget the person centred approach to therapy in those environments.

Emma Gee Definitely. And I think there’s so much focus on the development of new resources. The energy focus shift of building rapport and trust and really focusing on those skills that are really important to a person and how we can value their experience. So hopefully they can feel that they want to disclose information. And we can build trust with them.

Clare Jones You know, focusing on building quality therapeutic relationships to get to achieve the best results.

Emma Gee Yeah. I think now there is definitely a shift in the importance of drawing on that lived experience and in diversity and inclusion. And to really take that collaborative approach, and how we can enhance and work together.

Clare Jones And just coming back to the book, Emma, how can we purchase the book?

Emma Gee Yeah. So my book is available on my website www.emma-gee.com and it’s available in e-book or paperback format.

Danielle Weedon Excellent. And so you’re often engaged in advisory committees and give lived experience reviews on new equipment and projects and other resources while working directly with health professionals. Can you tell us a bit more about this, Emma?

Emma Gee Yeah, I’m involved doing so many different committees and projects. Basically, like I know today I’m partaking in a committee that looks at equipment provision and improving the design and accessibility, and usability navigation of different things. So it might be a piece of equipment or a website where I can share my insight and really improve the ultimate outcome. So today I’ll be working with a group of engineers and the university is funding that. But I also am working on another committee where I’m working with architects and researchers and other health professionals to really co-design the project about developing and designing facilities. So really varies a lot of what I am doing.

Danielle Weedon And so you’ve already touched on it, but I was about to say it’s not just health professionals you work with, you work in other sectors like engineering and universal design, but also in that resilience and diversity inclusion space?

Emma Gee So I’m working on a keynote for a girls’ school where I’m working, looking at resilience, and taking the angle of it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you choose to deal with it. So I work with a lot of non-health businesses about looking at how they can be more resilient and inject diversity into their workplaces. So, I do a range of work. I’m very passionate about working in the health sector, given my background. So I do a lot of keynotes and workshops in that space.

Clare Jones So Emma, in summary, just talking about your services. So you’ve got your advisory services. You do mentoring as well, is that right?

Emma Gee Yeah, so my experience stopped me from working face to face. It was quite a disheartening experience, I think, for a lot of people that suddenly you thought you weren’t involved anymore. But I discovered there are other ways of still contributing my experiences. Despite physical limitations, I continue to advocate and empower. So yeah, whether it’s face-to-face or group sharing my insights to enhance their services. So I do package mentoring for organisations for their staff and also individual sessions, especially uni students or new grads who really benefit from that time, to really stop and I guess brainstorm ways I can really optimise the care. I really learned from working in that fast-paced environment, that it’s not often that we have the opportunity to stop and reflect on our practice and improve our critical thinking and generate learning. So I love this space of really helping facilitate this and improving our care.

Danielle Weedon Our therapy listeners, a lot of them are working, not even neuro specific but in disability. So with the growth of the NDIS in the last few years, a lot of them would really benefit from your services in terms of, you know, working in assistive technology areas and that sort of thing as well.

Emma Gee And I know certainly my firsthand, ongoing experience of the huge obstacles I faced, going through schemes like the NDIS and working out how I as a participant can adapt to my own environment and hopefully learn streamlined ways of how people can navigate that process. So it’s an ongoing learning journey for me that hopefully make things easier for others in the future. So I love the continual learning that goes on.

Danielle Weedon And how can our listeners get in touch with you Emma?

Emma Gee Yeah so through my website, the contact form on www.emma-gee.com.

Danielle Weedon Excellent. We’ll direct them to your website as well. So thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us and share your story, Emma. And a reminder to our listeners that you can reach out directly to Emma to find out more about her services.

Emma Gee Thank you.

Clare Jones Thanks, Emma.

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