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No two days are alike for elite occupational therapist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles

USC alumna treats an array of teens and newborns — and she even makes hand splints for infants

Baby working with therapist Kimberly Grenawitzke
Occupational therapist Kimberly Grenawitzke, a specialist in treating feeding and swallowing disorders, works with a toddler. (Photo/Hannah Benet)

When Kimberly Grenawitzke leaves Manhattan Beach each morning for her job at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, she knows one absolute: It’s going to be an interesting day.

Typically clad in scrubs, silly socks and sensible clogs, she might help a young teen with a traumatic brain injury relearn everyday activities like hand washing or writing a name. Or find a way for a preemie with a feeding disorder to finally suckle from a breast or bottle.

Or teach hand exercises to a 17-year-old girl with a transplanted heart and a yearning to do the things that her peers do effortlessly, like hold a mascara wand steady so she doesn’t smudge her face.

On some days, I may see 12 kids.

Kimberly Grenawitzke

“One of the things that I really enjoy about my job is that no two days are alike. We’ll see children as young as newborns in the neonatal ICU to kids that are 19, 20, 21 and about to transition into adult care,” Grenawitzke said. “On some days, I may see 12 kids.”

Specialist at work

Grenawitzke ’07, MA ’09, OTD ’14 is among an elite corps of doctors of occupational therapy at CHLA, the sprawling complex with 356 active beds. Dating to 1901, this oldest and largest pediatric hospital in Southern California is an academic fieldwork site for the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy.

On top of her regular OTD duties on the acute, inpatient side, Grenawitzke heads the hospital’s OTD residency program and is the primary clinical mentor for residents.

A specialist in feeding and swallowing, she is among a select group of CHLA occupational therapists able to assess modified barium swallow studies, a procedure that determines whether food or liquid is entering a person’s lungs and is a certified practitioner of VitalStim, an electrical stimulation for the management of dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing.

And that’s not all. Grenawitzke is an accomplished splint maker for patients with hand-related needs. Some of her trickier splint cases involve babies who, due to a chromosomal defect called trisomy 18, have clenched fists with overlapping fingers that are hard to straighten.

Working OT

Occupational therapists who are climbing the ladder at CHLA speak of Grenawitzke with awe.

She’s a remarkable combination of being fantastic as a clinician while also being one of the best teachers I have come across in any area of my life.

Rani Waterman

“She’s a remarkable combination of being fantastic as a clinician while also being one of the best teachers I have come across in any area of my life,” said Rani Waterman MA ’16, OTD ’17, an OT resident whom Grenawitzke mentors at CHLA.

When it comes to Trojans, Grenawitzke has plenty of company at the hospital. To fill OT positions and especially OT leadership ranks, CHLA draws heavily from USC Chan, which has the oldest OT program in California and the largest as measured by research dollars.

Of the hospital’s current OT staff of 43, more came out of USC than any other single college or university, according to Bryant Edwards MA ’05, OTD ’06, manager of the hospital’s occupational therapy program.

Moreover, each of the hospital’s six doctors of occupational therapy are products of the division, as are two OTs who are currently pursuing clinical doctorates (advanced standing doctorates for individuals who already have master’s degrees) and one PhD.

No regrets

Anyone who’s gone through the clinical doctorate process will attest that it is no walk in the park. USC Chan’s yearlong advanced standing OTD program involves at least 20 hours a week of on-site clinical work and up to eight units per semester of theory-heavy coursework, plus at least four credits of electives taken outside the division.

After spending a number of years focusing on their full-time jobs at CHLA, Grenawitzke and her colleague Judy Hopkins ’95, OTD ’15 both returned to USC Chan for clinical doctorates. Neither have regrets.

“A lot of times an OT will ask me, ‘Is it worth it, when you’re already making a good income?’ And I say, ‘Absolutely.’ The connections with world-class faculty are amazing,” said Hopkins, who recently joined the USC Chan teaching staff as an adjunct assistant professor of clinical OT.

The Lunch Bunch and Supper Club

Like Grenawitzke, Hopkins is passionate about feeding and swallowing, the single most common type of ailment among CHLA patients. To help this large population, Hopkins developed two outpatient groups — the Lunch Bunch and the Supper Club — for youngsters who use feeding tubes due to intestinal conditions like short bowel syndrome. Some are so averse to food that they gag at the sight of it, Hopkins said.

Once a month, in the occupational therapy kitchen, OTs get together with the Lunch Bunch and the Supper Club kids, encouraging them to look at food, touch it and play with it. The hope is that one day, the children will be able to ditch the feeding tubes and eat on their own.

While the programs are popular with kids and their parents, Hopkins came to find out that passion and popularity are not necessarily enough.

Through her doctorate studies, Hopkins learned “that if I’m going to put together a program, I need a business plan to make it sustainable, to show what it really costs and how to get funding.”

Her guiding principle

As an undergraduate, Grenawitzke thought she was headed to medical school and a career as a pediatrician. But after getting a chance to observe an occupational therapist on the job, she changed course. What impressed her most was that the OT focused not on the child’s ailment but on “helping that child be a child.”

That’s the guiding principle she uses today. When she’s successful, especially after 10 hours on the job and a bumper-to-bumper drive home, it makes her day.

“She still gets excited about things that she’s done a million times,” said her husband, William. “Like making a hand splint and seeing a patient be able to pick up a pencil. It’s amazing to me.”

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