A member of the "sandwich generation," Heidi Ricks was a stay-at-home mom to two daughters while also taking care of ailing and aging parents. When her father had a car accident, "I was introduced to the world of therapy, which I'd never dealt with before," Ricks said.

Since she'd been thinking about returning to work, Ricks Googled "occupational therapy" and found a role called "occupational therapy assistant (OTA)." Even better, she discovered that the nation's oldest OTA program was at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. "Literally I had this idea in April, called up St. Kate's and they said, 'We're just taking applications now for next fall.' I did it within weeks. It was very spontaneous," Ricks said.

"All my day jobs have been people-oriented. I never want to be stuck in a cubicle," she said. Ricks spent 15 years as an actor after college. "I did the Jungle, Park Square, the History Theater. Twice I went out of town to do regional theater. I did Shakespeare, traveling around."

As an English major, Ricks had taken some science and other prerequisites. "Anatomy was the big prerequisite I didn't have. All the other classes were core classes in the major-hands-on patient care, goal-setting, documentation, psychology, safety precautions," she said. "We had to learn all the developmental issues of children. We also learned about Alzheimer's, stroke, Parkinson's and other issues affecting aging. An OTA can work with literally the whole spectrum of ages, from children on up to older adults. That flexibility was enticing."

She took the certification exam as soon as her course work was complete. The program at St. Kate's was "great at prepping and getting you all ready," she said. "I've got a license through the state."

Ricks got the first job she applied for, at the Veterans Administration. "I'm getting ongoing training through my job -- they help and encourage that to maintain your license and improve what you're doing at work," she said.

What is occupational therapy?

It's quite an old thing -- it came out of the mental health field. They discovered that giving patients something productive to do not only calmed them down but also made for a better atmosphere in treatment. Then with the World Wars, finding things for injured people to do was better for their self-confidence and more interesting than just repeating a movement 10 times. We know they're maintaining small-motor skills. They know they're making a leather wallet.

What's the difference between the OT and the OTA?

The OT does the assessment and paperwork. We get the face-to-face work. We assist with carrying out of goals and work with patients directly. We're trying to fit regular activities that people do or need to do: "Okay, you can't move your left arm. You still need to get dressed. You want to do puzzles. How can we work with you?"

What was it like to start a brand-new career in your 40s?

It was great being a mature student -- I was a much better student than I was before. There was another student who was 54, and we encouraged each other immensely. In our program, we had someone straight out of high school but a lot in their 20s and 30s and two of us in our 40s. This is the first summer trying to work full time with kids at home. It went more smoothly than I had planned. It's great to see adults every day.