After Her Sister’s Childhood Injury, Occupational Therapist Sammi Kesler Brings Empathy and Hope to People with SCIs


In 2009, Sammi Saunders Kesler was a high school junior with a desire to go into the medical field. Sammi—an Arizona native and natural leader—was 17 years old and unsure what future career path would best fit her.

Everything changed on December 19th, 2009 when her youngest sister sustained a spinal cord injury while playing soccer.

Suddenly, Sammi was spending much of her time after school at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, where her little sister Mackenzie was undergoing inpatient rehabilitation. If Sammi came early enough in the day, she would get to watch the occupational therapists at Barrow teach her sister how to adapt to life in a wheelchair. Sammi recalls “how cool it was that someone was teaching Mackenzie how to get in and out of restaurant booths, in and out of elevators, and generally how to be independent.” After weeks of supporting her sister through rehabilitation, Sammi realized that she had finally found her future career path.

Sammi would become an Occupational Therapist.

Sammi attended Boston University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in Therapeutic Studies and a master’s degree in Occupational Therapy. When Sammi had to complete a clinical rotation in grad school, she ended up back in Arizona at Barrow Neurological Institute, where she worked in the neuro rehab unit. She passed her boards shortly after her rotation and started working at Barrow full-time. Today, Sammi works as an Occupational Therapist on the same floor on which her little sister underwent rehabilitation in 2009. Where Sammi used to spend countless days watching her sister in rehab is now where Sammi spends her time helping patients with spinal cord injuries adapt to, what she likes to call, “their new normal.” For Sammi, everything has come full circle: “I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

Sammi says her experience with her sister’s spinal cord injury still positively influences her work as an Occupational Therapist. Sammi explains, “I think being on the side of a family member during the rehab process brings comfort to my patients; it lets them know that I understand how emotionally charged rehab can be. The experiences my family had with my sister during her acute recovery helps me empathize in a unique way.” Sammi’s ability to empathize makes her the ideal Occupational Therapist; developing strong bonds and lasting memories with her patients through empathy and positivity is something that comes naturally to Sammi.

Sammi’s favorite part about being an Occupational Therapist is getting to bring a positive energy to patients from “all walks of life” as they adjust post-injury. Sammi says, “I also love having the chance to show my patients that there is a fulfilling, happy, good life waiting for them on the other side of their spinal cord injury.” Sammi does this by connecting her patients to successful peers in the SCI community in Arizona who understand what it is like to sustain a spinal cord injury. Showing her patients that life does not end after a spinal cord injury is of the utmost importance to Sammi.

Sammi considers herself lucky to work at Barrow Neurological Institute. She says she is not only grateful for her co-workers and leadership, but she is “lucky to work somewhere with access to resources for the continuity of care of an SCI patient.” Most rehabilitation centers across the country provide patients with spinal cord injuries with the shortest duration of rehabilitation possible due to insurance restrictions. Sammi describes these insurance restrictions as “a race against the clock to help a patient and their family get ready to start a new normal at home.” Rehabilitation centers often send SCI patients home after a few weeks with no plan for further rehabilitation or care. But Barrow is different; people with spinal cord injuries can go to Barrow to receive ongoing, specialized medical care through programs such as “inpatient rehabilitation, outpatient therapies, and a comprehensive spinal cord injury wellness clinic.” Sammi recognizes that, over the course of her career, there will be many advancements in the treatments for spinal cord injuries, and “Barrow has the resources to be a leader in this growing industry.”

Working with people with spinal cord injuries has taught Sammi about the resilience of both the human body and the human mind. Sammi says, “I’m constantly in awe with how people with SCIs can adapt to new environments. A patient once said to me, “employers who don’t have workers with a disability are really missing out on the world’s most creative problem solvers.” I truly learn something new with every patient I work with.” As Sammi Saunders Kesler continues her career in occupational therapy, she looks forward to continuing to grow with her experiences in the spinal cord injury community. Sammi notes, “I will never know everything about SCI, and I look forward to being a lifelong learner and advocate for this community.”