Susan (Gore) Ahmad, MS ’99, BSOT ’64
Susan Gore Ahmad, MSOT ’99, BSOT ’64, has spent more than 50 years in the occupational therapy (OT) profession, but she is not quite ready to leave it just yet.
“Well, I ‘retired’ five years ago, but I’ve been an adjunct faculty member at Saint Louis University teaching a problem-based learning section for the past five years,” Ahmad says. “It’s been wonderful to keep in the profession just a little bit.”
Born in Decatur, Illinois, Ahmad credits her mother with starting her on the OT career path.
“My mother was an occupational therapist even though she never graduated from an OT school. She founded an OT department at a local hospital that’s still in operation. I volunteered in that department, and I loved it,” Ahmad remembers. “I loved art, painting and creating, and I loved working with children and the elderly. Occupational therapy was a good blend of both for me.”
With that career goal in mind, Ahmad completed her first two years of college in Decatur at Milliken University before transferring to Washington University in 1962. There were just 13 students in her class, and many, like Ahmad, lived in Olin dormitory. Ahmad has many memories of her time at WashU, but two in particular stand out.
“The American Occupational Therapy Association’s annual conference was held in St. Louis in 1963. OT students were able to help with the setup, and it was exciting to be behind the scenes. A. Jean Ayers gave the Eleanor Clark Slagle lecture that year, and it was about pediatric sensory integration,” Ahmad shares. “The other memory, unfortunately, is that of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It was on a Friday, and we had a big psychology test at one o’clock. I walked in the front door of Scott Avenue and heard the news. Our instructor said we were going to do the test anyway, so we trooped upstairs to the classroom and sat down. Miss Matthews, who was the program director, came up to tell us he had been shot, and we just lost it completely. The instructor gave us five minutes to compose ourselves, and we ended up taking the test. From what I understand, not many people passed that test.”
Following graduation in 1964, Ahmad began her career in the field of mental health. She returned to Illinois and worked at Elgin State Hospital, where she established an OT program. At that time, people with mental illness were institutionalized, so Ahmad looked for ways to reintegrate her clients into society. “Some of my clients hadn’t left hospital in 20 or 30 years. I thought it was important to give them experiences out in society. We would do things like rent a bus and take them to downtown Chicago during the holiday season to see the lights,” Ahmad recalls.
Ahmad continued to work with this population at the Edward Hines Jr. Veteran Administration Hospital in suburban Chicago. It was during the Vietnam War, and she worked with veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). She then moved to a private psychiatric hospital for adults and adolescents with drug addiction. Ahmad married her husband, Syed Mumtaz, then transferred to another hospital, where she worked until she gave birth to her son Omar. She then moved into consulting for nursing homes and extended care facilities in Chicago. During this time, Ahmad had her daughter, Sufia. Just when it looked like life was settling down, Ahmad’s husband was transferred to Peoria. She started working in an active therapy program at a large hospital and had two more sons–Adham and Kamron.
“At that point, I decided to stay home with my four kids. I love my kids, I really do, but I also love working, so I got a job at a rehabilitation center. They sent me to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation for training to bring my skills up to date. I worked in adult physical rehabilitation until my husband was transferred again to St. Louis,” Ahmad says. “After the move, I was hired at Christian Hospital to supervise a large OT program. It was then I hit a bump in the road.”
Ahmad was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1990.
“Fortunately, it was caught very early, but it gave me a shock. I had always promised myself I would go back to school and get a master’s degree in OT, and I decided to do it,” Ahmad says. “I enrolled at WashU, and the faculty was so supportive of me and my career goals. At this point, my children were in college, I was in my early 50s and I wanted to move into education. I graduated with my master’s degree in 1999.”
Ahmad started an occupational therapy assistant (OTA) program in the St. Louis area and began teaching. She then became the program director of the OTA program at the University of Southern Indiana. There, Ahmad and her students worked in a developing area of occupational therapy–helping recently paroled and released men and women gain the life skills needed to reintegrate into society.
“We learned that basic life skills such as budgeting, clothing, food preparation and leisure skills were lacking in this population. Many of them had a history of drug or alcohol abuse and we went through what they needed to do to maintain a clean lifestyle. Another OT group taught body mechanics for the workers in the jail,” Ahmad says. “Often, we saw generations of offenders, and the recidivism rates are high. Teaching these men and women these skills can have an impact on breaking that cycle.”
Ahmad’s son Omar followed in his mother’s OT footsteps. He earned his bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy at the Program, then earned a doctorate in occupational therapy from Creighton University and a doctorate of philosophy, neuroanatomy with emphasis on neuropharmacology from Warnborough College. “Omar is a neuroscientist at Saint Louis University, and he studies cells and brain function. It’s a very different type of OT from what I do, but that type of research is what informs evidence-based practice,” Ahmad says.
In 2014, Ahmad and six of her classmates from 1964 returned to the Program in Occupational Therapy to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Seeing her classmates and participating in the OT Commencement ceremony held special meaning to Ahmad.
“Prior to the reunion, I was asked to help contact my classmates to encourage attendance. It was lovely to reach out and speak with them after so long. During Commencement, we were able to march into Graham Chapel with the current faculty. Dr. Carolyn Baum had us stand up and be recognized,” Ahmad remembers. “A few of us weren’t able to attend our graduation back in 1964, so it was an honor to participate in the ceremony.”
Ahmad is a regular donor to the Program to invest in the future of her profession. “I’ve always had a great deal of pride in being a WashU graduate. The OT Program has always been in the forefront of research, education and patient care. What’s being done there now is incredible, and I am proud to support it.”
Looking back on her long career, Ahmad offers this advice to the Centennial class of 2018:
“Find your place in this profession. There is a place for you. Work in what you are passionate about, and enjoy what you are doing. Be flexible, because things will change in 50 years,” Ahmad says.