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Oyoana Allende, a Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy master’s student, decided to become an occupational therapist following her own rehabilitation experience.

Marine Corps veteran and occupational therapy master’s student Oyoana Allende is a month away from achieving her dream of becoming an occupational therapist—a profession she didn’t realize existed until becoming severely burned while serving in Iraq in 2005.

Allende worked as a platoon truck driver while stationed in Iraq. While working with infantry Marines at checkpoints in Fallujah, a suicide bomber attacked Allende’s truck, which caught on fire. The explosion threw Allende from the truck and burned her face, arms, and legs. Several of her comrades did not survive the explosion or were severely injured.

“I remember, of course, being afraid and feeling helpless,” Allende said. After the attack, Allende began rehabilitation in Germany before spending two years in Texas recovering. “I wasn’t sure how long it was going to take me,” Allende said. “My therapists and some of the doctors were all so helpful in explaining, in detail, what was going to happen.” After her rehabilitation, which included five surgeries, Allende realized she wanted to serve others as an occupational therapist.

Allende hopes to work with patients, including veterans and burn victims, who seek occupational therapy to enhance their ability to live fulfilling lives. “It was helpful for me to hear stories of people who had similar injuries,” Allende said. Currently, Allende works with patients at Duke Regional Hospital as part of her final 12-week fieldwork placement for her studies. “We have people here who are limited by their conditions, so I can relate to that feeling of frustration or being frustrated about wanting to do more,” she said.

Over the course of her career, Allende hopes to use her profession to honor occupational therapists with whom she worked during her rehabilitation.

“[A task] looks so small; it looks so easy,” Allende said. “When you do it every day, and when you’re independent, you don’t really think about it. But when they’re teaching you how to do it, it’s incredible. It makes a huge difference.”

Allende credits her occupational therapists with both physical and emotional aspects of rehabilitation. The field of occupational therapy emphasizes mental and physical health across the lifespan, which appealed to Allende.

“They not only helped me with the physical part, but also with the emotional how-to’s,” Allende said. “They encouraged me and gave me hope. I felt like a human being again.”

As an occupational therapist, Allende hopes to encourage others in their journey to live their best life. She hopes to use her story to inspire future patients as her former therapists inspired her.

“Being able to accomplish things and getting a sense of independence made a huge difference for me in my recovery. There’s hope here.”

Watch Allende’s story on the Today show.