The number of OTs who specialize in women's health and wellness is small – but interest in the area seems to be growing. OT entrepreneurs are finding a market demand for our holistic approach to the daily tasks and challenges surrounding the birth process.
Melissa LaPointe is one such entrepreneur. She is based out of Canada and launched a business, Strong Beginnings, to offer occupational therapy and consultation to women and families.
I hope her story inspires you as consider what role occupational therapy can play in this foundational niche.
Interview with Melissa LaPointe
What initially drew you to women’s health and wellness?
I was initially drawn to women’s health and wellness as a consumer, in an attempt to enhance my quality of life and better manage stress and chronic pain. By the time I was 27 years old, my body was screaming at me, in a number of different ways, that enough was enough, I needed to make some serious changes.
I grew up in a small, rural community in Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province that’s tucked into the East Coast. I completed two university degrees while moving around the Maritimes and in many parts of my life, I was a mess. I had hurt my back in my early twenties, setting the stage for ongoing issues with muscle spasms and chronic pain. I was on a constant stream of prescriptive and/or OTC medications for chronic pain, sinusitis, acne or tonsillitis, to name a few. I would frequently get hot flashes, I had issues with my body image and self-confidence and I was a heavy weekend binge-drinker. I carried a full course load while working two part-time jobs to try and make ends meet, I sat for hours and hours at a time in chairs that didn’t fit, I drank too much coffee and didn’t have a very well-balanced diet. Can you say recipe for disaster? I cringe when I think of how disconnected I was and the stress I was putting on my body.
In part, I made the decision to relocate to British Columbia in 2005 following OT graduation because of the opportunity I saw for a more holistic way of living. I knew I needed to make some serious changes in my life, I felt drawn to the mountains and I wanted to escape some of the ghosts in my past. Heading off on a new adventure to explore other parts of Canada sounded like the perfect solution!
Once in British Columbia, I had a more active lifestyle and developed a healthier relationship with food. But I was still prone to muscle spasms, I still had issues with digestion, bladder infections, pelvic pain and back pain. Then at 26, my doctor misdiagnosed me with overactive bladder syndrome and I was led to believe that only medical interventions such as prescriptive medication and surgery would help with the situation. That’s when I started to see a naturopath, setting the stage for the work I’ve done in understanding hormonal imbalances and pelvic health.
Two years later, in 2008, I attended a very powerful one-week paediatric mentorship camp with internationally renowned occupational therapist, Kim Barthel. The camp focused on a number of treatment modalities and therapeutic approaches, combining the mind-body connection with occupational science. It was brilliant, fascinating and scary. All my life I had been raised in a strong Catholic community and I was having a hard time wrapping my head around complementary and alternative healing methods without feeling some semblance of guilt. During the mentorship camp, Kim and her group of master trainers introduced us to the science behind so many of these healing approaches - colour therapy, sound therapy, craniosacral therapy, myofascial release, emotional freedom technique, Reiki, and holotropic breathing. Perhaps even more importantly, she taught us about the neurobiology behind the power of belief. It was an incredibly enlightening experience and helped pave the way for broadening my scope of practice and reducing my reliance on the medical system as the expert over my body.
Over the next two years, I really opened up to complementary and alternative medicine, in addition to doing my own inner work on trusting my gut and listening to my body. I committed to a pilates practice, I started doing more yoga and I began to incorporate Restorative Exercise. I continued working with a naturopath, I also started to see an osteopath, a chiropractor, an astrologer, a shiatsu healer and a counsellor. I committed to healing myself from the inside out, making changes in my life and putting my own self-care higher on the priority list. In part, I also knew I wanted to have a baby soon and I was very motivated to make these changes prior to getting pregnant! By 2010, I was off all prescriptive medication and no longer relied on it to manage my symptoms of stress. I soon became pregnant with Max, growing my passion for holistic nutrition, deepening my meditation practice and my interest in women’s health as a whole. My birth story then included an emergency c-section and a self-designed holistic recovery plan. While on maternity leave, I continued hearing more birth stories, witnessing the women in my life experience complications with both childbirth and recovery. They were suffering with postnatal depression, anxiety, pelvic floor dysfunction and often PTSD. Very few had support systems in place and dealt with these challenges in silence, describing feelings of isolation and hopelessness. I was well aware of the connection between maternal health and paediatric well-being. I was well aware of the many ways our publicly funded healthcare system was failing to support our new mothers. I was introduced to an entire area of health that was under serviced, and very misunderstood, by our medical system. I felt like I had opened a Pandora’s Box of pain and suffering.
And so it began, when Max was seven months old I made the commitment to resign from my position as paediatric therapist and venture on this journey of women’s health and paediatric well-being as a social entrepreneur. I was determined to combine both women’s health and paediatrics into a private practice. I was also committed to sharing more of the knowledge and training I had accumulated over the years, bringing more of this work to other healthcare practitioners as I share stories of personal experience. And throughout this process of self-discovery and personal growth, I continue to manage my health primarily through functional movement, lifestyle modifications and complementary medicine, with an annual visit with my doctor to check in. I’m now 37 years old and feel very strong and present in my body. I can go camping and actually use a sleeping pad. I sit on the floor most of the time with little discomfort. I can once again cross the monkey bars and climb trees. I am a committed barefoot walker and I feel so much more grounded in my body than I did throughout my twenties!
Can you give a brief overview of the business you launched?
Ok, this is my best attempt at being brief. If you want to know more, just come and check out our website!
Strong Beginnings is an innovative for-profit social enterprise that is bringing world-class online training, educational resources and coaching supports to integrative health practitioners around the globe. We’re focused on improving health outcomes in women and children through community development, professional growth and online technology, applying new tools and approaches to work traditionally done by government organizations and educational institutions.
Another way of saying this: Strong Beginnings is the result of a heart-led vision when I was at one of the more challenging times in my own personal journey, after several months of sleep deprivation, postpartum anxiety, marital stress, mobility issues from a damaged tailbone and financial stress… I had to reach out for help again and again from friends and family. Getting in touch with my vulnerability is something I work on but continue to find very challenging. To say that I was in a unique headspace when I started this company would be somewhat of an understatement. Strong Beginnings is as much a tale of my personal growth & development as it is a business and social enterprise. Hence the emphasis we have on building our community through storytelling and connection!
What special training did you acquire before launching Strong Beginnings?
I registered my business in spring 2013, still not sure what direction this would take and how I could integrate both women’s health and paediatrics into my consulting work…But I was seeing it start to come together. I wanted to serve women and children in my community, which meant a brick & mortar type business. Yet, I wasn’t willing to give up our extensive trips to see our East Coast family & friends, our traveling lifestyle and my passion for teaching. I wasn’t willing to let go of the ability to set my own hours and create my own work environment, the professional network I was building and the vision I had for a global community based on my teachings. And so in August 2014, I enrolled in a business-coaching program with the specific intention of figuring out how to grow my company, while blending my work in community development with my passion for teaching and professional growth.
Everything helped pull this company together - my psychology degree, my OT training, my experience as a rural health practitioner, my East Coast connections and my West Coast living experiences, my health challenges, my journey as a mom, my journey as a women’s health practitioner - Strong Beginnings is a culmination of it all. Starting this consulting company has been a long, twisty, and uphill battle with so many pivotal (and humbling) learning experiences along the way.
How did your occupational therapy background uniquely prepare you for this work?
Being trained as an occupational therapist has enabled me to see things differently and have a stronger understanding of the biopsychosocial model of health both in my personal development and as a women’s health/pediatric therapist. I’m able to integrate teachings from a number of different fields because of my OT background, applying it to a number of different clinical populations. I’m a more effective teacher and I have a different level of appreciation for making things both functional and meaningful.
Perhaps most importantly, being an OT has helped me in terms of healing myself, helping me navigate through the stages of life where I needed a deeper understanding of how to manage chronic pain, depression, anxiety, quality of life, functional movement and the mind-body connection. Having this level of knowledge and training, in part, gave me the courage to explore the darker side of occupation and go to places in my own personal healing where I might not have gone before.
Do you consider the consulting services you provide to be occupational therapy or something altogether new? Are they billed as OT services?
Both, we offer two tiers of services through Strong Beginnings. Our client-focused therapy services that are offered out of our office in Williams Lake, BC (both women’s health and pediatrics) are billed as occupational therapy. Our intake forms, charting, billing, fee structure, advertising, policies and therapy sessions all follow the professional guidelines as stated by our provincial regulatory body. I also supervise and mentor both OTs and OT students in this setting.
Our online services are different in that we offer coaching, mentoring and online professional growth opportunities geared to a number of practitioners, including but not limited to OTs.
What is one of the greatest challenges you have been confronting in your current line of work?
I would have to say that lack of venture capital would be my greatest challenge (while also being my greatest source of creativity, amusement and resiliency, stories we’ll save for another interview!)
I started a business four years ago while carrying personal debt, without a business plan and with no financial backer. I was told again and again that I am “unsecure” in the banking world. So I’ve been doing what I do best… I live simplistically, I often work online through a virtual office and with a virtual team, I am creative with my finances, I am continuing to build our suite of products and as we continue to make more money, I continue to re-invest it into my company and I’m paying myself more consistently. Slowly but surely, we are seeing this company grow and blossom through perseverance and determination. I am so proud of what we've created when I look back at how far we’ve come!
What advice would you give to a fellow OT who is interested in launching his/her own business/social enterprise?
Find a coach and/or a community that understands the holistic nature of running a heart-led business. There is an immense amount of personal growth and development involved in running a business, being in a position of leadership and having good energy around money while still finding balance in work-life-home. It's possible, absolutely, but it takes hard work and supportive community to make it happen.
What advice would you give to a fellow OT who is interested in working in women’s health?
Network, network, network. Find your tribe. And if you can’t find it, build it. There’s enough work out there for all of us, we don’t need to compete with one another. What we need is a stronger community, more accessible resources & training, a stronger support system in place while we do this work. Working in women’s health right now is very much about trailblazing and figuring out a new way - it’s not for the faint of heart. It requires a lot of thinking outside the box, a passion for constant learning, a thick skin and a commitment to personal development. I also see a lot of women coming into this area of practice because they have a deep commitment to serve - which can easily lead to burnout. It's like jumping down the rabbit hole, once you start doing this work, it becomes more obvious how much work there is to be done.
If people want to learn more from you about prenatal and integrative health and OT where would you direct them?
Come on over to Strong Beginnings, where you’ll find a few different options depending on your interest and commitment level. Whether it's an introductory webinar on integrative women’s health or a 6-month online intensive with an additional coaching package, we have something for everyone!
Also follow us on social media (Facebook and Twitter) - we’re a social enterprise that gives back to our profession and our community. We offer special discounts, student/new grad pricing, scholarship programs and lots of free resources. You’ll also be the first to hear about the launch date for our Strong Beginnings podcast… Where I can’t wait to continue recording these amazing interviews and sharing great content with my followers!