While a high school student in Bloomington, Indiana, Hayley Chrzastowski set her sights on two long-term goals: She wanted to work in Africa, and she wanted to become an occupational therapist.
But the diverging goals shared a common denominator: The intent behind each was to improve people’s lives.
Chrzastowski is poised to realize both of those dreams when she graduates this month with a doctorate in occupational therapy and leaves a few weeks later for Africa. In September, she will begin a 12-week fellowship in Nairobi, Kenya, during which she plans to develop and implement an occupational therapy (OT) program for women and infants.
Chrzastowski knew she wanted to pursue a career in OT from the time she first saw an occupational therapist in action. The therapist was working with a child who had autism. “The therapist was making such a difference in the child’s life, and I just knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she recalled.
After shadowing an occupational therapist in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) as an undergraduate, Chrzastowski realized she wanted to work with women and infants in a medical setting. She became interested in researching global health care after participating in international mission trips while growing up.
“When I visited the School of Medicine’s Program in Occupational Therapy, I knew this was the place for me because they had a NICU research program and a service trip to Guatemala,” she said.
Chrzastowski traveled to Guatemala with fellow OT students as part of a service trip during her first year in the program. A year later, she led the trip.
“Leading the trip was a powerful experience that taught me about dedication, commitment, organization and the importance of global health care,” she said. “After these trips, I decided working internationally would be a significant part of my career.”
Chrzastowski’s research toward her doctorate was conducted in the St. Louis Children’s Hospital NICU under the guidance of Roberta Pineda, assistant professor of occupational therapy and of pediatrics. Chrzastowski researched the amount of breast milk that premature infants consumed during their stays in the NICU and the effects on neurobehavior, such as neurological reflexes and motor development. When neurobehavior is assessed, it helps clinicians determine if an infant is struggling to progress in a way that later may manifest in the form of cognitive, motor or other impairments.
“I was very interested in the role mothers could play in caring for their children at a time when many mothers feel like the caretaker role is largely filled by medical personnel,” she said. “Breast milk is that golden ticket that only the mother can provide.”
Chrzastowski hopes to provide preliminary evidence showing that the quantity of breast milk provided to premature infants in the NICU affects specific parts of the infants’ brains by the time they reach 35 to 40 weeks. “I’m hoping these benefits will encourage more mothers to breastfeed,” she said.
In September, she will head to Kenya to implement a program to help pregnant women. Her goal is to help them identify their daily tasks and how their activities support or hinder their pregnancies and affect the development of their fetuses.
“I will work with the women to determine if there are any modifications they can make to decrease the strain they put on their bodies and if there are any locally created assistive devices that may support the women throughout their pregnancies,” she said. “My ultimate goal is to work with women during pregnancy and then with their infants immediately after birth. Working on the bond between women and children and using those natural maternal instincts to help with child development is an area of OT that is not well-defined.”