PhD grad finds her calling serving those who serve their country

Chelsea Jones knew little about the military before becoming an occupational therapist, helping ease people out of their pain and back into their day-to-day lives. But when she realized there was a gap in the kind of treatment soldiers needed beyond physical therapy, she knew where she belonged.

As she graduates tomorrow with a PhD in rehabilitation science from the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, Jones continues to devote her career to helping members of the military and veterans as an occupational therapist, as well as a researcher at the U of A.

“I wanted to advocate for this population and be part of the solution,” said Jones, one of just two full-time occupational therapists serving the western region of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), an area that runs from Thunder Bay, Ont., to Victoria, B.C. 

“When you help someone with occupational therapy, it’s really rewarding to see them smile, to return to their activities, to be successful in their workplace and be a parent to their children. And when you’re helping a military member, you are also contributing to the greater good of the country and the people that they help.”

Holistic approach to helping patients

She first became intrigued with occupational therapy (OT) after volunteering as an undergraduate student in Saskatchewan, at the institutions where her mother worked as a psychiatric nurse. Working with patients who had mental health challenges, Jones saw gaps in treatment.

“There was an obvious need and a lack of resources, and as a consequence, a lack of evidence-based research and interventions—for instance, that exercise programs could be advantageous for mental health.”

She saw a career in occupational therapy as a way to bridge both worlds.

“It lets me work in both physical and mental health, and have a holistic point of view to help patients. By looking at that big picture for each individual, we can look at potential barriers and strengths for people, so we can leverage those strengths and reduce the barriers. It’s not a cookie-cutter approach.”

“When you help someone with occupational therapy, it’s really rewarding to see them smile, to return to their activities, to be successful in their workplace and be a parent to their children. And when you’re helping a military member, you are also contributing to the greater good of the country and the people that they help.”

Jones earned an MSc in rehabilitation science from the U of A, and in 2012 started with the CAF. In her daily work, she began to realize there was a need for more knowledge and services related to cognitive rehabilitation issues her clients were grappling with.

“I felt these gaps were suited for OT and I saw a massive need for research and services specifically for military and veteran populations.”

To that end, with the support of the CAF, she took a sabbatical in 2018 and returned to the U of A to help establish Heroes in Mind, Advocacy and Research Consortium (HiMARC). The initiative was created to advance research, education and service for the Canadian military, veterans, first responders and their families’ health and well-being.

Innovator and teacher

As a research co-ordinator at HiMARC, Jones worked on several projects, including using virtual reality as an innovative way to treat military members and veterans with combat post-traumatic stress disorder.

Four weeks after returning to the U of A, she decided to pursue her doctorate, conducting studies on computerized cognitive assessment tools and technology acceptance within military populations, ultimately focused on paving a strategy to a collective policy for the CAF on how to go about assessing cognition after injury or illness.

While completing her PhD, Jones not only continued her work with HiMARC, but also taught a module on OT for military and veteran populations, passing on her passion for her profession and how it helps people, particularly those serving in the military.

“I love being a myth-buster. There is so much false information that influences our perceptions of military, veteran and public safety personnel. It’s important to learn about the unique strengths, barriers, cultures, diversity and challenges they have, so we can provide the best health care possible, tailored to the needs of the client,” Jones said.

“I love sharing this with motivated students who are the future of rehabilitation. They’re so engaged and curious. It gives me hope for the future of health care.”

Now back working with the CAF, Jones also continues in the faculty as a post-doctoral fellow, in a research partnership between the U of A and Leiden University in the Netherlands, furthering the HiMARC work.

Research will continue to be part of her career, Jones said.

“It challenges me and allows me to be curious, and it allows us to implement the most effective, economic and low-risk health-care policies, practices and interventions to help people recover, reach their potential and have the best quality of life possible.”

Jones added that she’s grateful for the time she spent studying at the U of A.

“The university has given me so many different skills: knowledge translation, planning programs and implementing action that I can carry over into my clinical practice. And I was able to do clinical work, teach and do research all at once. It was great to see it all work together.”

Jones was supported by funding from the Legion AB-NWT Command Military Clinician Scientist Award and a Government of Canada Innovation for Defence Excellence and Security grant.

/University of Alberta Release. This material comes from the originating organization and may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. View in full here.