Reflections on my Elizabeth Casson Lecture: Dr Gwilym Wyn Roberts

Dr Gwilym Wyn Roberts

The beginnings

On entering the Welsh School of Occupational Therapy in the late 1970’s, my first clinical placement was at The North Wales Hospital Denbigh, a placement which was to inspire and inform my career as a Mental Health Occupational Therapist. There I observed and learnt about the true value of meaningful occupation and the impact on mental health and well-being. It was a true affirmation that I had entered the best care profession in the World.  It was there I discovered that in 1881, Dr Elizabeth Casson was born just down the road from the Hospital, in the Welsh market town of Denbigh.

The informed journey – The honour of being invited

In 2001, the conference theme was ‘Broadening Horizons’. At the time of presenting the Casson Memorial Lecture, I was just about to broaden my own horizons as I was moving on from my position as Director of Education and Practice at the College to return to my passion for higher education at The University of Wales College of Medicine in Cardiff. Researching for the lecture gave me the opportunity to reflect on 5 wonderfully proud years as an Officer of our professional body. It was also an important  for me to maximise on my experience to integrate past and future thoughts as a way of identifying key themes  that were emerging on the horizon for occupational therapy in the UK at the turn of the century.

From my student days, I had been inspired by Dr Casson’s legacy and her inner confidence to achieve what she truly believed in.  The more I learnt about her pioneering life, the more I admired her vision and passion. I appreciated that she was a woman ahead of her time. From what I read, she had wisdom, she had heart, she was resilient, she had courage, self-sufficiency and most of all a willingness to take risks. As I began to think about my lecture, I was also reminded of the wisdom within the “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, written in 1900 by L. Frank Baum and followed by the iconic 1939 movie. For me the book explores profound human attributes and qualities very similar to those I associate with Dr Elizabeth Casson. And there it was, an inspirational structure to my ‘broadening horizons’ Casson lecture, the profession’s journey along our own yellow brick roadtowards the Emerald City. As the film’s opening dedication succinctly states: ‘Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion’ (Warner Bros 1937). I believed that the same could also be said of occupational therapy. The story spoke to me of the paradoxical nature of our professional journey, our education and continuing professional development. As Dorothy Gale tries to sum it all up before leaving Oz.”  …. if ever I go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard, because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with “. A central wisdom that I wanted to plant at the heart of the lecture was that as occupational therapists we should not look beyond ourselves when searching for our answers. In the movie, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion all seek external magic to give them qualities they already possessed but at times failed to fully recognize. I wondered at the time, was this also true of our profession?

As I sat to plan my lecture, a seed was planted. In mastering specific aspects of our professional skills and knowledge, I questioned whether we could aspire to be  seen as experts, specialists, higher level practitioners within the domain of what we were  exploring through occupational science? As an officer of the profession, I was in the privileged position to witness the continuous evolution of the profession through enhanced confidence in education, research, evidence-based practice and an increased willingness amongst our profession to own our unique identity. In discussion with practitioners of the time, I sensed a strong belief that occupational therapists need no longer hide behind the ‘jack of all trades’ image that others were projecting onto us. We had the skill, knowledge and expertise to become masterful professionals in our own right. It was this that inspired my focus on ‘higher level practice’ and at a time when I was heavily involved in clinical governance and a project to define a new breed of consultant therapist, as outlined in both the NHS Plan and Meeting the Challenge: a Strategy for Allied Health Professions (Department of Health [DH] 2000a, 2000b).

Journeying to the Emerald City

 

 

Structuring my lecture around the qualities I associated with Elizabeth Casson, and furthermore the wisdom of the Wizard of Oz showed me a clear synthesis between its philosophy, her legacy and indeed my own aspiration for the future. For me, becoming a resilient professional meant having to face troubled times with confidence and belief.  In the Wizard of Oz, I pondered whether the cyclone was indeed a physical manifestation of Dorothy Gale’s inner struggle for self-awareness, self-pride and determination? May this also have been a description of her struggle to be seen and an indication of her resilience to survive, just like our profession at the time?  Ironically,  on the day of the lecture a real storm was brewing over Swansea Bay. Dark, troublesome thundery clouds and violent lightening appeared, just like in the Wizard of Oz, it was a perfect setting as I prepared to present my lecture.

 In the months before, as I put pen to paper, the more I thought about Baum’s wise counsel, and considered my own impending and exciting new professional horizons, I connected with Oz and the 3 main qualities sought by the Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion; those of Courage, Brains, and Heart. Looking at my own personal journey, and the professions aspiration towards higher level practice I reflected on what may be required to achieve it, without forgetting how Dr Elizabeth Casson had led the way :-

  • Courage to be – resilient, pioneering, brave, opportunistic, confident, extending scope, sharing knowledge, evidence based, able to continuously improve, raising standards, professionally unique.
  • Brains to be able to – improve intelligence/knowledge, show wisdom, make informed choices, clinically reason, be a master, safe practice, evidence base practice through research, practice within the law.
  • Heart to be – compassionate, dignified, holistic, accountable, confident in the belief in what we do, honest. trustworthy and to serve society with integrity.

When considering the further development of the profession and the advancement of knowledge and skill, there was a need for even more self-awareness, self-pride, independence of thinking and determination. More importantly, I felt that we needed to be clearer about the need to embrace the transition from professional adolescence into what I regarded as professional maturity and adulthood. My hope was to offer something new through embracing the messages in The Wizard of Oz (Baum 1937, Warner Bros 1937, Green 1998). I believed that the journey down the ‘yellow brick road’ could make a career in occupational therapy even more worthwhile and meaningful. To this day, modern day practice demands courage, heart, brains and a spirit to survive in a professional world that is constantly challenging and rewarding. Working in partnership with others whilst maintaining and protecting professional identity and mastery is in itself viewed as having an authentic professional attitude to work. An integral part of any fundamental change strategy is a conscious decision to move to an affirmative practice and learning mode, where both learning and doing are equally valued and where individual and collective excellence in care is celebrated. This was, and remains an essential precondition for managing fundamental change in occupational therapy practice. I now fully recognise  that we remain ‘Jack of all trades, but are also masters of many.

Looking back, presenting the lecture and especially on home ground was one great highlight of my career. It was an opportunity to celebrate my own, and the professions success and future aspirations as a way of honouring our founding pioneer.

……………………….. There’s no place like Home.

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