Class of 2021: Cara Harman wants to help patients regain their lives

She was inspired to go into occupational therapy after her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. “[I] wanted to do something to help families that were affected by tragedies like mine.”

Cara Harman.
Cara Harman was inspired to pursue a career as an occupational therapist after her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. "I feel as if all my experiences have shaped me into both a better person and health care professional," she said. (Kristen Downard)

Cara Harman realized at a young age how happy she felt when she was helping someone else. At 6 years old, she wanted to help her parents’ close friends, whose baby was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy.

“I drew them cards, helped my mom make dinners and baked goods for them and helped raise money towards the Muscular Dystrophy Association,” said Harman, who will graduate next month from the VCU Occupational Therapy Doctorate Program in the College of Health Professions.  “I remember even donating my tooth fairy money to the MDA.”

Harman’s desire to do something to benefit people spurred an interest in health care. Growing up, she wanted to be a doctor but after shadowing one she realized the amount of time spent with patients was limited.

“I wanted to get to know people and build relationships,” she said.

She didn’t home in on occupational therapy as a career until after her mother was diagnosed with stage four glioblastoma (a brain tumor) when Harman was a junior in high school. Harman and her father served as her mother’s caregivers until she passed away a few months before Harman’s high school graduation. 

I learned so much from my mom in the short 18 years I spent with her, and I am still trying to live by all the values she taught me,” said Harman, who grew up in Roanoke. “I want to be the mother she was — fun, thoughtful, caring, helpful, energetic, loyal, patient and sympathetic.”

Harman attended Virginia Tech and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. While there, she shadowed an occupational therapist for a day.

“I loved it,” she said.

It was during that time that Harman’s father struggled with addiction to pain medications as a result of more than 12 years with chronic back pain.

“After realizing how opioids were taking away valuable parts of his life, he sought out professional help and alternative strategies for pain management to avoid opioid use,” Harman said.
He now hasn't taken a pain medication in over five years. He’s been a great role model for all his kids.”

She feels confident that occupational therapy would have benefitted both of her parents. She chose to pursue a career in the field because she “wanted to do something to help families that were affected by tragedies like mine,” she said.

Occupational therapy can be beneficial for people of all ages “in all aspects of their life — physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally,” she said.

Every intervention is individualized to a particular patient.

“That allows us the ability as OTs to use our creativity in order to help people get back to doing the things they need and want to do,” she said. “I love how OT allows me to have fun with my patients and connect with them on so many different levels.”

Harman started her doctoral program in 2018 and during her time on campus she has worked in the College of Health Professions dean’s office and served as student leader on the diversity, equity and inclusion team.

“It has helped me to be more well-rounded,” she said of the team. “I have increased my knowledge of cultural humility and cultural competence. That is so important, especially in the medical field. It also taught me to be a good person and to listen to people. It really opens your eyes to what is going on in the world around you.”

Harman credits Stacey Reynolds, Ph.D., an associate professor in occupational therapy, for getting her interested in the neuroscience field within OT. Harman would like to work with patients who have Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), Parkinson’s disease, brain tumors, brain injury and spinal cord injury as well as patients who are recovering from a stroke.

“I feel as if all my experiences have shaped me into both a better person and health care professional,” she said, adding that she’s always had the support of her grandparents, dad and brothers. “They have been my rock throughout the past seven years and not only encourage me in my education but also push me to be the best human being I can possibly be.”

Occupational therapy, she said, is the “perfect fit for me to use what I have gone through to help others know they will be OK again and that they are not alone.”

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