Alumna profile: Deborah Burns, O.T.R.

Burns launched the first hospital rehabilitation program in Broward County, Fla. as a young UF grad. She’s been leading the growth and development of rehab in that area ever since.

By Jill Pease

Burns, DebbieIt was 1974 and Deborah (Schmucker) Burns, a brand-new UF occupational therapy graduate, had just been offered the opportunity to start the first intensive rehabilitation unit, consisting of occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech pathology services, at Holy Cross Hospital in Ft. Lauderdale.

“I thought, ‘That’s really wonderful,’ and then, ‘What do I do now?’” recalls Burns.

Fortunately Burns had a group of supportive faculty members in the UF occupational therapy program who gave her advice on starting a rehab program from scratch, from purchasing the right kinds of equipment to anticipating the needs of the patients she would be serving as the first rehab unit occupational therapist in a Broward County hospital.

“In hindsight, I should have been scared to death, but I wasn’t. I was excited,” she said. “Jane Slaymaker [former UF occupational therapy instructor] was my cheerleader and I would call her a lot. You have to have somebody in your corner who is not only clinically-based, but also has a helping heart like she did. She wanted me to succeed.”

In those early days, Burns’ job was as much treating patients as it was educating physicians and nurses about the role of occupational therapy. Many had never worked with a therapist before. At that time there were only a handful of institutions in the South educating occupational therapists and UF was home to the only program in the state.

“I had physicians who said things that were kind of hurtful because their interpretation of occupational therapy was, ‘Oh, you’re the play lady,’” Burns said. “So I developed a 30-second blurb to say what I was doing at Holy Cross and that made them look at me more seriously.”

Burns also created a printed “red flag list” to help physicians and nurses spot patient issues that would indicate a referral to occupational therapy. As time went on and doctors and nurses started seeing what occupational therapy could do for their patients, the word got out and referrals grew. The seven-bed inpatient unit she started became 26 beds, then 43 and now 48.

“Marketing our services is still something we do today,” said Burns, now Holy Cross Hospital’s rehabilitation director for outpatient services. “Even though physicians are coming out of their training these days with a much bigger, broader sense of rehab, we still contact physicians in the community and discuss the offerings we have for their patients. We’re still spreading the word.”

For many years Burns had the opportunity to supervise occupational therapy students, including several UF students, who were completing their clinical internships at Holy Cross. One of them was Marvieann Garcia-Rodriguez, a UF occupational therapy graduate (BSOT ’84 and MHS ’09).

“I have been practicing for almost 30 years and I still use the skills that I learned and applied at Holy Cross Hospital under the direction of Mrs. Burns,” said Garcia-Rodriguez, a clinical specialist, pediatrics and NICU, and student fieldwork coordinator at Miami Children’s Hospital. “We have become friends and I will call her on occasion to consult and confer on OT issues. She is a model asset to our profession and a strong testament to the outstanding education that the University of Florida provides students.”

With the exception of working a year at Shands Hospital in the mid-1970s when her husband returned to Gainesville to earn a master’s degree, Burns has spent her 40-year career at Holy Cross, steadily building the hospital’s inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation programs and advancing in leadership positions. Recently, she has been developing and opening new outpatient satellite rehab clinics in Broward County.

“Sometimes I’ll look out over this hospital of 570 beds and the expanse of our rehabilitation footprint in the community and I think, ‘How could they have ever done without us?’ I’m so proud of everything we have achieved,” Burns said. “The occupational therapists who join us today have no idea of the uphill climb we had back in the day when people really didn’t recognize us. How wonderful it is to see us finally standing toe-to-toe with any other health professional in this facility.”