When Karen Sames was a child, she and her mom frequently visited her grandmother in the nursing home. The occupational therapist was often there, too. One day the therapist asked the little girl if she wanted to make a feather flower for her grandma.

"I decided I wanted to be the feather flower lady when I grew up," remembers Sames, associate professor of occupational therapy at the College of St. Catherine (www.stkate.edu). As a teenager, Sames volunteered in the mental health unit of a local hospital. That experience solidified her career plans.

Satisfying activities
Occupational therapists (OTs) work with clients who have mental, physical, developmental or emotional disabilities. "We help them do the things they want, need or used to do in a way that's personally satisfying," Sames explains.

An OT might help a child with developmental delays learn the social skills needed for success in school or teach a stroke survivor one-handed cooking techniques so she can continue making her favorite dishes.

Work settings
OTs work with people of all ages in medical settings like hospitals, long-term care, rehabilitation and outpatient clinics; community settings such as group homes and sheltered workshops; and schools where they support students and consult with teachers.

According to the American Occupational Therapy Association (www.aota.org), about 12 percent of OTs are self-employed. They may run their own clinic or consulting business, or contract their services to other providers. Another 12 percent combine part-time work and self-employment.

During the course of their career, it's common for OTs to move among settings and work with a wide range of clients.

Requirements And Outlook
Occupational therapists must complete a master's degree. To be licensed, they must also pass a national certification exam.

Successful therapists are creative and good problem-solvers. They also have excellent people skills and can listen, encourage and be patient with clients. "The ability to establish a one-to-one relationship is crucial in occupational therapy," Sames says.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of occupational therapists is expected to increase 23 percent between 2006 and 2016. "Most of our graduates have jobs before the ink is dry on their diploma," Sames says.

Nancy Giguere is a freelance writer from St. Paul who has written about healthcare since 1995.