From Mosul to Baltimore

From Mosul to Baltimore

OTD graduate continues to serve with U.S. Public Health Service

By John Darwin, BA’13

Josef (Joe) Otto, OTD’08, knew he wanted to be an occupational therapist since high school.

In his current position with the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps, Otto is living out his early aspiration, addressing public health problems and providing care to underserved populations in the United States.

The USPHS, led by the surgeon general, operates under the direction of the Department of Health and Human Services. To understand Otto’s work in his current tour, it helps to look back on the rest of his career as a military occupational therapist.

Otto joined the Army in 2002, after graduating with an undergraduate degree in occupational therapy from Ohio State University. He completed rotations at various locations nationwide — from Tacoma, Wash., to Fort Hood, Texas. In April 2005, he was deployed to Mosul, Iraq, in a combat stress control unit. It was in Iraq that he had his first opportunity to really put what he learned as an OT to the test.

“We often said that our main goal was treating normal people having normal reactions to abnormal events,” Otto said. “Their reactions weren’t different than what anybody else would go through when seeing unfortunate things. We tried to treat and normalize, not pathologize.”

Otto later joined the Air Force Reserves, while working at a Veterans Affairs hospital. Around that time, he also decided to further his education. He had an interest in developing his skills in academia and exploring the field of occupational therapy more deeply. His search brought him to Creighton.

“Creighton was an easy choice for me,” Otto said. “They were one of the first clinical doctorates in OT, and they had amazing faculty with impressive accomplishments. At that time [in 2006], there weren’t many programs with large faculties. Whenever I’d ask someone about a clinical doctorate, the conversation quickly turned to Creighton.”

After graduating with a Doctor of Occupational Therapy degree from Creighton in 2008, he returned to active duty with the USPHS — joining about 7,000 health care officers, from physical and occupational therapists to dentists and physicians.

His administrative tours as a Public Health Service officer have taken him from Gallup, N.M., to Baltimore, and have seen him at the forefront of issues such as traumatic brain injury (TBI) and quality management within the Affordable Care Act. Otto and his team developed a program at Fort Bragg for diagnosing and treating TBI that became the model for care across the Department of Defense. He’s also been deployed to help with floods in Louisiana and with Hurricane Irene.

“One of the biggest things Creighton taught me was how to do research and find answers to my questions,” he said. “I was always pushed to understand problems, and was provided methods to understand how to solve them. That skillset has served me well.”