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A reflection – Celebrating a 27 year career at Livability

April 5 2024

Julie O’Brien is an expert in rehabilitation for people with an acquired brain injury. As she retires from Livability Icanho, she shares what has inspired her during her long career – and her plans to go out with a 25-mile flourish.

When did you start work at Livability Icanho?

I was one of the original therapy staff, joining as rehabilitation team coordinator, back in August 1997. The building was ready to open in January 1998 and that’s when we started working with clients. I’m an occupational therapist and I came from the rehab service in Norwich and developed an interest in stroke and particularly brain injury rehab. This post seemed ideal for me so I relocated from Norwich to Suffolk. It was a wonderful opportunity because it’s a unique place and opportunities like that are fairly rare. It felt right up my street and 27 years later, it clearly was up my street!

‘You made what seemed impossible become possible’ Livability Icanho client

‘The neurosurgeon saved my life – you gave me my life back’ Livability Icanho client

What have been the high points for you?

Working with such an amazing interdisciplinary team for all these years – physio, OT, speech and language, psychology, social work, rehab consultant and assistant. It’s such a privilege to be able to really work with this kind of team, and to really understand other professional perspectives. It’s like if you’d never seen an elephant, and there’s one in a house, and you can only look through one window in your professional role; other professions are looking through other windows. Separately, you would never understand what it is you’re looking at. That’s what the team does – looks at clients from their own perspective and then we talk together and reach an agreed understanding.

What about clients you’ve worked with?

Individual cases that strike me most are the very complex ones that need me to coordinate the therapies, and it’s often young people who are ok one minute and the next minute they’ve had a life-changing brain injury. Plus working with their families to help them grasp what’s happened. It’s helping people to piece together a different reality – to understand the difficulties they have, and where those and where their strengths might be and then help them optimise any natural recovery. And then helping them to move forward in life, to build a new reality. If a full recovery isn’t possible, we help people learn to live with the difficulties they have. It’ll be different from the life they planned to have but it’s a life worth living.


What’s brought you joy in your work?

Seeing the people we work with progress and what the team is achieving with people. Quite a high proportion of people get back to work and we help couples whose relationship might be experiencing stress and strain because of the trauma. It’s seeing that person that I might have initially assessed and who used a wheelchair and then they walk out of the building [after treatment], or someone who can’t communicate and they learn ways to do this so you can have some kind of conversation with them. It’s very powerful.

It’s also been very special to have several royal visitors over the years, including our patron HRH The Princess Royal. I met her when I was presented with an outstanding staff achievement award in 2016. Personally that was a very difficult year because my mum had a stroke in the January; I was going to visit her in hospital when I got the call from Livability to say I’d won the award. Then in March, my husband was diagnosed with cancer and two weeks later, I was diagnosed with cancer. We both had a period of time off that year and it does make you focus your mind on what’s important. Our children were 13 and 15; the most difficult thing I’ve done in life is tell my children I had cancer. But – here we are, we’re both fine and it was a wonderful award to get in a year of many ups and downs.


If Livability Icanho didn’t exist, what would people lose?

They wouldn’t get the opportunity to work with the interdisciplinary team. People with complex needs wouldn’t get the integrated service they need. They might get a little bit of physio here and occupational therapy there, but not get everything pulled together. I think more people would end up in care, more would have longer-term disability, potentially relationships might break down, and people might not get back to work. All those things that seem impossible can often be made possible here.


What changes have been significant?

Technology, of course: we can now help people remotely, we’ve got our wonderful body weight support system, the Bioness Vector, and developments like virtual reality are things we want to keep up to date with. When I started, we didn’t even have mobile phones!

What will you miss the most when you leave?

Oh, the people, definitely, both the staff group and the clients and their families. I’ve been reflecting on what I get out of work, and we know money is not the main thing in this work. For me, it’s helping people. That’s what I like to do and I’ll probably need to find some other way to help people. I’m very active in our local village and I’m hoping I’ll be able to spend a bit more time in my garden.


Tell us about the challenge you’re taking on …

Yes, when I was thinking about retirement, I really wanted a challenge to raise some money for Livability Icanho, a place I’ve loved so much and still do. It needed to be achievable – I did the Three Peaks Challenge twice when I was younger but I decided my knees and hips probably wouldn’t survive! So I’m doing the Orwell Challenge, a 25-mile walk or run along the River Orwell in Suffolk (although you can do a shorter distance). A team of us are planning to do it, including two of my Livability Icanho colleagues, and some of my family. All the proceeds will come to Livability Icanho and I’ve got a £500 target.


How will that help Livability Icanho?

As funding is becoming increasingly challenging, fundraised monies have become much more important in supporting this amazing service. It is no longer just the icing on the cake. It might pay  for a particular piece of equipment or subsidising extra staff training, which is expensive at senior level and often involves travel.


Would you like others to join you on the challenge?

Yes! Anyone can do this, whether you can walk one mile or 25 miles. There’s lots of different ways you can take part so challenge yourself. Livability Icanho is a great organisation to support so let’s see what we can achieve!

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