Woman still living out her calling

Published 9:19 pm Tuesday, April 9, 2019

By Tonya S. Swindell

According to John Holland’s theory of vocational choice, occupational therapy and Fran Olsen were a perfect match. Encouragement from her mother and the military’s promise to cover educational costs led to a fulfilling career. Although Fran no longer practiced occupational therapy in an official capacity, enduring principles of the profession provided guidance as she embraced life and adapted to change.

Fran and I met when she displayed silver handmade jewelry as Artist of the Day at Blue Skies Gallery in Hampton. She conversed with wit and wisdom. Her charm and smile were evident. After discovering she was a fellow occupational therapist, I invited her to visit other clinicians at Hampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

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We learned how her mother, a registered nurse, recommended occupational therapy. Fran’s artistic talents, giving spirit and mastery of physical and psychosocial interventions bolstered her suitability to practice within the field. After serving six years in U.S. Navy as an occupational therapist during the Vietnam War, Fran achieved the rank of lieutenant commander. She worked full-time for 27 years at Maryview Behavioral Health Center and 20 additional years as a substitute therapist.

On a regular basis, she engaged patients in group dynamics, life skills training and craft making. Fran was also two-term president of Virginia Occupational Therapy Association during organizational efforts for licensure. She was co-founder and first term president of Tidewater-Peninsula District of Virginia Occupational Therapy Association.

During conversation, Fran recommended everyone see two impactful films: Academy Award-winning “Green Book” and a 2017 movie titled “Thank You For Your Service.” Rotten Tomatoes described the latter as: “a sobering and powerfully acted…look at soldiers grappling with the horrific emotional impact of war.” Fran mentioned it may be helpful to ask military men and women, “How are you doing today?” instead of emphasizing rote and repetitive responses that could seem hollow.

Fran’s openness was apparent when a black veteran offered his seat, allowing her to rest while she waited for valet. She invited the gentleman to sit beside her and they chatted until her car was returned. Fran toyed with the idea of bringing veterans together to drink coffee, swap stories and support each other in a relaxed environment.

For several important reasons and in many distinct ways, Fran’s acknowledgement of occupational therapy principles continued not just in group facilitation, but in daily living. Fran has been very supportive of her loving husband, a retired Lutheran minister to whom she has been married 51 years. She also cares for a longtime friend, whom she routinely assisted with activities of daily living for more than 20 years. As a result of such interactions, Fran attested to the value of purposeful living.

Fran Olsen let what she learned flow, and in other ways she let go to see where life would take her. Her wisdom, training and implementation of well-established principles never seemed far behind her. They provided useful guidance and practical skills for living as Fran’s appreciation for occupational therapy continued.


Tonya Swindell writes a blog for www.inspirenewlife.org and is a teacher for Kingdom Building Equipping School (KBES.com). She can be reached at 1brightot@gmail.com.