Raised in an Italian-Canadian family, Francesca Sawyer helped out her grandparents over the last few years of their lives, driving them to appointments and doing other essential errands.

As she searched for a career path after they had passed away, she remembered how much she had enjoyed that role, supporting the needs of senior citizens. A Capilano University counsellor pointed her in the direction of Cap’s Rehabilitation Assistant program.

“It sounded exactly like what I wanted to do,” says Francesca, now 28. “I could work with the elderly and I could help people.”

Francesca graduated last spring from the intense two-year diploma program. She’s working as a physiotherapy assistant at Burnaby Hospital in five wards, which she describes as a fast-paced and engrossing situation.

“It’s such a broad spectrum of people. I like to mix things up and keep it interesting.”

The job, she says, combines being an advocate for people who can get better with helping those whose health might not improve, but who can still maintain their quality of life by remaining as active as possible.

Tracy Dignum, the co-coordinator of the Rehabilitation Assistant diploma program, says good verbal communication skills are essential to rehabilitation assistants. From the start, Francesca struck Tracy as vibrant, enthusiastic and passionate.

“She’s an empathetic, kindhearted, very sensitive person. She understands the boundaries, and she’s honest and trustworthy, as well.”

A high level of professionalism is essential when it comes to the rapport between a rehabilitation assistant and a therapist because more and more, they’re working independently, says Tracy.

“The R.A.s are the eyes and ears of the therapist much of the time.”

International practicums are available for those students who do well, as Francesca did. She was able to do her final practicum at Perth, Australia’s Armadale Hospital.

“It was a geriatric rehab, so it was kind-of my element. I was in the occupational therapy side of things,” she says, pointing out that the Rehabilitation Assistant program offers three disciplines: occupational therapy, speech language pathology, and physiotherapy. Before Perth, she had already done two physiotherapy placements.

“Physiotherapy is more trying to get patients moving, whereas occupational therapy focuses on more meaningful and purposeful functioning,” Francesca explains. “So if a patient has to learn how to eat again, maybe after a stroke, occupational therapists have the tools to help find different ways to help them eat again or use different forks or different knives. You’re basically trying to get them functioning so they can get back to their everyday lives.”

Francesca noticed that the Australians she worked with often consulted Canadian manuals and openly admired the Canadian way of doing things. She found her experience there unforgettable.

“The only thing that was quite difficult was the language, even though they’re speaking English. It was definitely challenging to hear and understand,” she says, laughing. Luckily, her own Canadian accent became an icebreaker with her Australian patients.

Francesca has nothing but good things to say about the Cap program.

“We only had 22 students, which was really quite nice because then you became like a family. I made such good friends.”

For Francesca, one of the most important aspects of the program was that her teachers were still practicing in the community, so their knowledge and connections were current. Of course, the prospect of a job after graduation was also key.

Graduates of the program qualify to work in any Commonwealth country, and their chances for employment are excellent.

“Most of the students are hired before they complete the program,” Tracy says.

Submitted by Marketing & Communications