Occupational Therapist Joins the Front Lines of COVID-19

April 10, 2021

Typically, we photograph everyone appearing in HealthU. Because this story was planned during the COVID-19 pandemic, that contact would have been too risky. Instead, our team took a creative approach and replaced photo shoots with illustrated portraits.

During the surge of the COVID-19 pandemic, the physical, occupational and speech therapy teams at Palisades Medical Center were redeployed to the front lines to assist nursing teams in the care of patients. It was an alarming and unprecedented time for everyone, and the dedication of the nurses, doctors and other team members was truly heroic.

One person in particular helped keep teams grounded and offered an abundance of support: Nicole Nerli, OT, OTR, who has worked in the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Department at Palisades for 15 years. Nicole assisted nursing teams in a variety of ways. She brought food to patients and helped feed them if they couldn’t feed themselves; changed clothing and bed linens; took blood sugar levels, which she had to be trained on; sanitized work areas; and ran to get supplies, just to name a few.

“It was nerve-wracking at first, but once I was on the floor, I found my way,” she says. “I followed the lead of the nurses, we worked as a team, and eventually if I saw a need, I would jump in.”

Nicole also helped in a way that wasn’t as tangible but equally appreciated: She brought positivity and emotional support to the entire team. Nicole says she didn’t change who she was to help in this way—that’s just who she is.

“I’m the kind of person that, when I ask how you’re doing, I really mean it,” she says. “I want to know how I can help you get through something or to celebrate the good things with you. Once I know you, you’re my friend; you’re my family.”

Nicole says if there is one positive thing to come out of the experience, it was the chance to expand her family from her therapy team to the rest of the staff. “I’ve always had a respect for what the nursing staff does. But to see what they went through [during the COVID-19 pandemic], my respect went through the roof. Everybody gave 100 percent wherever they were. And I made connections with people I may never have otherwise.”

Q&A with Nicole

What drew you to occupational therapy?

My father was a physical therapist, so I knew about the therapy side already. But I was working in another field when I learned about occupational therapy (OT), and I went back to school to get my OT degree.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

I love watching my patients get better and regain their function. I love working with them and hearing their stories about where they came from and who they are.

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