August 6, 2019 — Team Rady Airlines has treated me well throughout my passport journey, but today’s trip required a flight change to the self-proclaimed “most fun airline” of the Hospital: OT Airlines, overseen by our expert occupational therapy crew! The OT team helps Rady Children’s patients develop cognitive, motor, adaptive and social skills across many facilities (Plaza, main campus, Torrey Hills, Murrieta and Oceanside) and programs (including C3 and KidStart), and I was eager to meet the people behind this far-reaching group. Once Director of Down Syndrome Clinical Programs Alexa Kratze, therapist/”pilot” Martha Beck-Monroe and Lead Occupational Therapist Kim Arndt handed me my first-class boarding pass, I was ready for takeoff.

Receiving my first-class boarding pass from Captain Marta

First, I stopped at the handwashing station — think of it like a TSA checkpoint, since all OT visitors must enter with clean hands to keep everyone healthy. Lauren Heimerdinger made sure we followed the “Happy Birthday” guidelines, and also pointed out the visual cues posted to help little ones adopt good handwashing practices. Lauren also started me off with a station-specific stamp on my boarding pass, a travel trend that would continue into the rest of my destinations.

Next, we jetted over to the Imagination Station, where Julia Tharp, Lisa Lucero-Krier and Meagan Paulsen led me through some of their favorite exercises for honing fine motor skills. I started out with removing some tiny objects from “thera-putty” (sort of like a slime-Silly Putty hybrid), and then molding the putty into a caterpillar (making sure to use both hands during the exercise, but one at a time, to build bilateral dexterity). From there, I shaped the creature into a ball, flattened the ball into a pancake and stamped my first initial into the putty with a miniature tool. I also saw how many kids work on handwriting through the “frog jump” technique, which teaches them to write letters by “leaping” to different points on a chalkboard (Lisa was a great guide with this and included some very authentic frog sound effects), and how they learn to tie and untie shoes. My hosts explained all of these exercises encourage grasp, strength and dexterity — all important to helping kids participate in day-to-day activities!

Julia and the thera-putty both put my fine motor skills to the test

As we moved on to Adventure Alley, I was encouraged to “lose the shoes and rock the socks” for some activities! Somehow, Bekki Frank got me in a ball pit for the second time in my tenure here at Rady Children’s, where I was tasked with retrieving three toys. This kind of game is designed to help kids with sensory issues get more comfortable with different levels of pressure and new textures, as well as fine-tune their motor planning capabilities. I also sat on a bolster swing (picture a padded log suspended from ceiling ropes) while Lynn Melickian handed me sticky toy after sticky toy. While in motion, I needed to throw the toys at the mirror in front of me until they made contact and clung. “Your sensory system is getting woken up!” Lynn said. Finally, Paola Monroe and I played a game of basketball. I sunk the first few baskets no problem, but then she had me balance on a Bosu Ball — a little trickier that way!

Learning about sensory-developing activities from Angela

Sensory City brought a new set of activities my way. First, I sat down with Angela Heard, who led me through a “bean bin” challenge. To beat the challenge, I needed to dig through a bin of dried beans to find individual puzzle pieces and complete the puzzle. Angela explained this game is great for sensory development, and mentioned that OT staff can swap out the beans for many other items (such as rice) that address a child’s unique needs and hesitations surrounding texture. Next, Mirabelle Giampaoli described how some children with sensory issues struggle with self-care skills or performing certain tasks at school because of the texture of products such as soap or paint, respectively. To support a higher level of comfortability, she and the other OT team members can lead patients through an activity that involves spraying shaving cream on a mirror; spreading it out; and using it as a canvas for shapes, letters and pictures. I got to try this out myself, and it was a messy good time.

Let’s give Denise a hand for her fantastic splint-crafting skills

I then visited Laura Hoffinger and Denise Hoover in the land of Hand Therapy. Professionals on this side of the OT team help babies with congenital birth defects or birth injuries, as well as older children recovering from injuries or surgeries, build or regain hand movement and strength. Denise was responsible for building me a custom splint to stabilize my hand, which she did at record speed! After tracing my hand (and making a masterpiece of a hand turkey in the process), she built a paper model that she measured and used to create a thermoplastic splint right then and there. While she worked, Laura asked me to rate my (fictional) hand pain using the Faces Pain Scale, and then we tested my hand strength. I’m proud to report that I hit the average for someone a couple of decades younger at my first try, and once I had Denise’s splint, I beat my personal record! These really work, and I saw firsthand (no pun intended) how they provide support to our patients.

Feeling stronger than ever, I had worked up quite an appetite, so our final stop — Feeding Fun — was perfect. Lindsey Lonseth noted that many kids the OT team sees need help with building respiratory strength, breath control and lip muscle strength, all of which contribute to healthy eating function. She then led me through a couple of fun activities occupational therapists do with their patients to enhance these skills, including making sounds with several kinds of whistles (no hands allowed!) and a race to see who could blow soap bubbles to the top of a bowl first (with the help of a giant straw). Next, Suzanne Settelmayer and several members of the group emboldened me to do something most kids only dream of: play with my food! With spaghetti, sauce and all sorts of colorful veggies at our disposal, we filled in faces and shapes with snacks, while Suzanne described how this kind of game makes food — especially those that are very soft, wet or slimy — less intimidating for children with sensory issues, for very picky eaters, or for children learning to eat later in life. This approach made perfect sense, and it was neat to hear how OT team members also work with parents to help support their kids at home during mealtime.

Play with my food? If you say so …

On that tasty note, I was presented with a parting gift bag, complete with a fidget toy, a pinwheel, my custom splint, some authentic airline snacks and some thera-putty of my very own! I then got my official passport stamp and was on my way. While I know the activities I participated in today can sometimes be frustrating, scary or difficult for our patients, it was heartwarming to see what a capable, kind and supportive team they have helping them every step of the way. Thanks for the great welcome and comfortable flight, OT Airlines! Save me a seat for a future trip.