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New divisional head ‘called’ to occupational therapy from a young age
Author: FMHS Marketing & Communications / FGGW Bemarking & Kommunikasie – Sue Segar
Published: 29/05/2023

As a child growing up in the Eastern Cape town of Graaff-Reinet, Professor Lizahn Cloete's life took a drastic turn when her beloved grandmother suffered several strokes.

“She was such a strong woman who had been a capable single mother for as long as I'd known her. The strokes changed her, and I couldn't understand why she could no longer do the things she used to do," says Cloete, who was recently appointed as head of the Division of Occupational Therapy at Stellenbosch University's (SU) Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS).

“During my mom and my daily visits to my grandmother, I became interested in how we could make things better for her. I think it was at that point that I became aware of the importance of helping people to do what they can with the abilities they still have, when they have a health condition that affects how they live their lives."

Cloete believes it was this early experience that steered her in the direction of occupational therapy (OT). She was encouraged to follow her passion by her parents, who are both teachers in the area, as well as her six older siblings, who also work in education.

In 1996, she completed her undergraduate degree in OT at the University of the Western, and then worked in the Boland-Overberg region as a community-based OT, where she also ran a private practice in paediatric OT.

In 2001, she took up a lecturing post at the University of Cape Town, where she completed her master's and PhD while working.

Her master's and PhD research focused on maternal and child health, particularly on the prevention of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. Her master's research explored the reasons why mothers drink during pregnancy, and for her PhD she developed a decolonisation process against imposed occupations (DPIO). The DPIO guides practitioners and researchers to identify and develop supportive environments for women who are at risk of prenatal alcohol use, and their children. She received her PhD in 2012

Cloete joined SU in 2014 as a lecturer in the Division of Occupational Therapy and became a senior lecturer in 2017. With close to 30 years' experience in OT practice and teaching, she coordinated postgraduate research until her recent appointment as head of division. She has numerous publications in peer-reviewed journals and has co-authored several book chapters. Her practice and research still focus on creating supportive environments for women and children affected by prenatal alcohol exposure, and she is also interested in research on decolonising undergraduate and postgraduate curricula in higher education. Her teaching experience spans relational ethics, professionalism, management and quality assurance, and policy implementation in OT.  

Cloete is passionate about her profession and says she never misses an opportunity to tell people about OT. “Occupational therapists are experts in occupation, where occupation refers to the activities people do every day –­ from the moment they wake up until the end of the day. It relates to all the things we have to do, need to do, and would like to do as human beings. If people have any difficulty doing any of those things, then an OT can assist them to resume these activities."

The main goal of occupational therapy is to integrate people into their living, social or work environments, or children into play and school environments. For this reason, Cloete stresses the importance of community-based strategies for prevention of disease and promotion of health, wellbeing, and development. “Coming from a family of eight kids, I always had a sense of community and of being part of a collective. That has had a big influence on how I've perceived my profession. It makes sense to me to treat patients within the context of family and the support of caregivers. The patient in the ward is a mom back home or a CEO of a company back at work. It's crucial for all health practitioners to bear the patient's context in mind during treatment. A key focus for me is to create supporting environments for my patients and clients."

She continues: “It's wonderful to be able to use one's passion to contribute as a citizen in the country. Being an occupational therapist still gets me excited with the knowledge I am working towards a bigger purpose."

On plans for the division, she said her key focus will be on staff and student support, and to facilitate social impact.

“We have a well-established staff component working in a variety of fields of specialisation. We continue to strengthen efforts to support the cohort of students, who had online learning in their first and second years during the Covid-19 pandemic. Although they have overcome a lot of obstacles, some of them need continued support, especially now that we are using face-to-face and blended learning and teaching approaches."

On her vision, she continued: “Occupational therapy transforms the lives of individuals, families, and communities through enablement of occupation. Our diverse and inclusive team is committed to dialogue and the establishment of supportive environments for patients, clients, other service users, staff, and students. We will continue to support international collaboration, academic excellence and research practices that include quantitative, qualitative, and participatory research methodologies that facilitate equitable access to OT services and promote contextually appropriate services for social impact. Our students will be competent in the promotion of health and the prevention of disease at all levels of care. Our work will advance knowledge translation of research into practice into training future occupational therapists who are accountable, compassionate, and respectful.

“I commit myself to promoting OT in training, practice, research, and service delivery spaces as relevant and responsive in the efforts to address global challenges."