“I never once thought, coming into this school, that I would be working for a scuba diving company as an occupational therapist. Never once did I think I would get to travel the world and interact with so many amazing people who have so many challenges and so many experiences—and be part of something so life-changing.” So says Jesseca Samaniego, OTD ‘21, who focused her capstone project in USAHS’ Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) program on how to help people with disabilities learn to dive. This project has turned into a consulting job with Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), plus opportunities to present at national conferences and international events. The Diving Life Young Jesseca grew up in Oceanside, California, where she Read more
In the summer of 2019, Jose Rafols, OTD, MHSA, OTR/L, program director of the entry-level occupational therapy programs on USAHS’ Miami campus, was looking to hire a new faculty member. Three colleagues sent him the same resume: that of Antonette (“Toni”) Fernandez, DrOT, OTR/L. “When I receive the same resume from three separate people, I listen,” Dr. Rafols said. “Dr. Fernandez is well known in the South Florida community of OTs. I knew she would be an asset to clinical internship and placement of students in hard-to-find clinical slots.”
Dr. Fernandez joined USAHS as an assistant professor within our Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) and Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) programs. She is also the OT academic fieldwork coordinator for the Miami campus. And her resume is indeed impressive.
She comes to us with 35 years of clinical and leadership experience in occupational therapy across a wide range of settings in South Florida. For 18 years, she served as the inpatient therapy manager at HealthSouth Sunrise Rehabilitation Hospital (now Encompass Health) in Fort Lauderdale. Most recently, she was the rehabilitation manager at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. She has also served as an adjunct professor at Florida International University (FIU) and other Florida universities. In July 2021, she was appointed vice president of the Florida Occupational Therapy Association (FOTA).
We spoke to Dr. Fernandez to learn more about her passion for practice and teaching.
USAHS: You’ve worked as an occupational therapist across many different populations. What’s your favorite area of OT clinical practice?
Dr. Fernandez: I still work in an adult neuro clinic on a per diem basis. The complexity of the neurological puzzle keeps my senses sharp. If it’s a patient suffering from a head injury or a stroke, you ask, “Why is this symptom manifesting? How can I facilitate movement, cognition, and their engagement in occupation so they can transition back into the community?” If it’s a spinal cord injury, you teach the patient how to adapt, have a purposeful life, and be as independent as possible. Each solution is different. You’re not looking up an answer in a textbook; you must truly be a scientist.
As teachers, we’re driving our students to understand that OT is a science. Whether it’s cognition, neural, visual, or sensation deficits, we teach students to ask, “What is happening with this patient, and how can I provide compensatory therapy?”
What attracted you to leadership roles in OT?
Although I’ve always had leadership instincts, I never had the intention to transition into management. People have come to me and asked me to take on leadership roles. I take opportunities and develop new skill sets—and then more opportunities open.
In the same way, I had no desire at first to get my doctorate. I was a single mom of three high school kids and working full-time! But a mentor encouraged me to go back to school. When I saw the value, I made it happen. I got my doctorate in 2012. Just like with those management positions, the universe brought it to me and said, “This is your journey.”
Why did you make the choice to go into academia full-time?
As I’ve been getting older, I’ve been thinking, “What’s my legacy—what will I leave behind?” I believe I can make the biggest impact by working with a large audience of future professionals. Our students are the future of occupational therapy. They’ll be treating me someday. I can instill in them a passion for the profession and a passion for the populations we serve. I tell them that it’s not a glamorous job—that you will see the human body in its most vulnerable state. But how can you embed empathy and compassion into your practice, and give patients hope?
What attracted you to USAHS?
I had taught as an adjunct at other universities, but I had never commingled with other faculty. It’s invigorating to have peer-to-peer conversations—and entice the students, engage them. Besides coordinating fieldwork, I’m also teaching courses such as pediatrics, residential geriatrics, and leadership. It’s a lot of juggling, but I love it! I have great support from my program director, Dr. Jose Rafols. When I have ideas about how to enhance the student experience, he allows me to implement them.
After I was elected VP of FOTA, I wanted to create a large submission for the FOTA conference in November. We pulled together the largest submission from any university attending. We had 14 faculty members from the Miami campus teaching short courses and appearing on panels. We rocked the place! The message this sends to students is, “You need to be involved. Help sustain the profession and move it forward.”
What do you think of USAHS’ emphasis on hands-on learning?
The CICP [Center for Innovative Clinical Practice] is amazing. Students get to see us as clinicians in action when we sit down as colleagues or peers to discuss a case. The Anatomage Tables are so innovative—the student can see layers and layers of human anatomy. The driving simulator is extremely important for making sure people are safe.
During their fieldwork, when our students started doing actual interventions with patients, they looked at me and said, “Now I’m getting it.” I said, “Because you’re actually doing it.” Learning hands-on is key to understanding the science of OT.
Can you speak to the importance of diversity in healthcare education?
Miami is a great place for diversity. You see the diversity in the classroom—different colors, shapes, lifestyles. My classroom is amazing that way. But when we transition students to practice, sometimes they freeze—they worry they don’t know how to be culturally competent practitioners. I tell them that they must get to know the individual, the person, the being, who’s in front of them.
At the assisted living facility where we are doing our Level I fieldwork experiences, there is a gentleman from Honduras. He told the students he could walk on his own, but he really couldn’t. The students wanted to do a balance test with him, but he didn’t want to walk. I spoke to him in Spanish and said, “We’re going to dance.” His eyes lit up with excitement. I put some Latin music on my phone and we shimmied from the bed to the door.
My students said, “How did you do that?” I told them,
“When you adapt to the person and tap into their essence, you’ll be a truly diverse clinician.”
Today we saw the same patient, and his family was visiting. He didn’t want to do the activities the students had prepared—he said he was too old. We got out his family album, and I said, “Next time, we’ll ask you to tell stories about the people in this album.” I said to the students, “Clearly, family is important to him, so we can incorporate the importance of family into his treatment sessions.” You must meet the person where they are.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve been doing this for 36 years, and I can’t even think of when I would stop teaching or practicing. Only when I’m six feet under. As long as I can be a resource for these young minds, I will be. My plan is to stay curious and continue giving back to my profession and the future of occupational therapy.
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers hands-on Master of Occupational Therapy(MOT) and Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) degrees. Join a collaborative cohort of peers who learn under the mentorship of expert faculty-practitioners. Practice with mock patients in our state-of-the-art simulation centers and learn anatomy with our high-tech tools. Prepare for clinical practice with patients across the lifespan. The OTD program includes a capstone project and additional coursework in practice leadership and policymaking. Residential (online coursework + in-person labs on weekdays) and Flex (online coursework + in-person labs on weekends)formats are available.