By Peggy Reisser | Photos by Brandon Dill
Caroline Dickey says she’s a walking billboard for her profession.
A 2017 graduate of the UT Health Science Center’s Master of Occupational Therapy program, Dickey says occupational therapy (OT) is about adapting, working with what you have and figuring out how to do what you want to do. “That’s the story of my life,” she says.
Born with spondylometaphyseal dysplasia, a rare form of dwarfism, she had her first major surgery at 3 years old. By age 7, she’d had two more. Dickey’s legs would bow as she grew, and the difficult surgeries were to straighten them. “By the time I was 3, you could fit a basketball in my legs,” she says. One more set of surgeries followed at age 15, after she stopped growing—13 hours on one leg and another long operation on the other leg a month later.
Suffice to say, Dickey knows about pain, adjustment and acceptance. But let it be known that the 3-foot-6-inch, 26-year-old is more interested in surviving, succeeding and thriving.
“Everyone has obstacles; everyone can make excuses for themselves; but, at the end of the day, it’s all about the perspective and how big of an impact you make in everyday life,” she says. “You don’t have to pull someone out of a burning building to be your own hero.”
Dickey was born in Memphis. “My parents, brother and sister are all average size,” she says. “I grew up very independent, and I think that’s what has gotten me this far.”
She faced some bullying in elementary and middle school, but by high school, that had pretty much stopped. “I never really thought of myself being different,” she says. “I forget I’m small.”
She began her undergraduate work at Lipscomb University in Nashville but fell in love with UT Knoxville and transferred there after visiting friends and her boyfriend, Clay Hillyard. Her can-do spirit and a Segway made the huge campus manageable. “That saved my life,” she says. “I zoomed on that thing all day, every day.”
Already, the kinesiology major was on a path toward her profession. She volunteered as a counselor at Camp Koinonia for young people with special needs. She worked at Camp Oginali for individuals with Down Syndrome and helped at other special-needs camps.
Those opportunities and her life experience drew her toward a career in therapy. “I wanted to be able to make the impact that my therapist made on me,” Dickey says. She shadowed therapists in various disciplines. “I fell in love with OT because of how adaptable it is.”
Dickey applied only to the occupational therapy program at the UT Health Science Center. “God and faith were on my side,” she says. “I met with all the professors before I came and said, ‘Hey, I’m here. You probably don’t know what to do, and I don’t either, but we’ll figure this out.’” That meant everything from determining what kind of stool or ladder in the anatomy lab would raise her up enough to work with the cadavers to figuring how to use oral instructions to show competency with transfers of patients she could not lift.
“UT Health Science Center was so willing to meet me where I am and to try to walk with me and figure it out, rather than being like, ‘OK, good luck,’ ” she says.
Dickey gave the program as much as she received. She served as chair of the founding board of the Rachel Kay Stevens Therapy Center, a student-run, pro bono pediatric OT clinic established in honor of OT student Rachel Kay Stevens, who died shortly after starting her training. Dickey led fundraising efforts and spent hours with classmates painting child-friendly scenes on the clinic walls.
“It was a joy to see Caroline grow her leadership skills during her role as chair of the Rachel Kay Stevens Therapy Center student board,” says Anne Zachry, chair of the UTHSC OT department. “I have a deep personal and professional respect for Caroline, and I’m thankful that she brought her tremendous energy, enthusiasm and passion to our program.”
At graduation, Dickey received the Rosemary Batorski Community Service Award, which is given to the graduating student who has demonstrated outstanding service to his or her class, UTHSC or the community. She attended the ceremony, despite a six-month recovery from hip surgery shortly after finishing her final fieldwork.
Dickey wanted to stay in Memphis, where Hillyard is a biomedical engineer. “Finding a job was difficult for me,” she says. “I went in for OT interviews. I said, ‘This is me. I can do everything but lift you up and move you.’ Finding the right one took awhile, but I’m definitely in the right place now.”
She is the only full-time occupational therapist at Whitehaven Community Living Center in Memphis. She works with geriatric patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions that make everyday tasks difficult. It’s her job to find ways to make those tasks doable.
“I love it,” she says. “It is always challenging with initial treatments, trying to figure out how to best help my patients. Being smaller than my patients definitely has its challenges, but I believe that it makes me a better OT. Occupational therapy is about making it work with what you have and finding the best method for you to get the job done. That is what I do in my own life, and that is what I help my patients discover every day. We learn together.”
Stephanie Hale, director of rehab at Whitehaven Community Living Center, says Dickey has been a great addition to the therapy team. “Her treatment approaches are inventive, and her enthusiasm is contagious to her patients and co-workers,” Hale says.
Dickey’s life now is not without pain. She has scoliosis, and walking hurts her back. “That just gives me more empathy for my patients,” she says.
But there is also much joy—her April wedding to Hillyard, their new house in Arlington, Tennessee, and the career she loves.