Featured Alumni Profiles

Gary Grimaldi

BS '92, MA '95, Occupational Therapy

Alumnus Gary Grimaldi, Director of Rehabilitation Services at Cerebral Palsy of New York State, did not waste any time responding to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Here he describes his project to collect and transport durable medical equipment to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and reflects on the role of our profession in disaster relief.

What motivated you to become involved?

The national office of United Cerebral Palsy in Washington D.C. sent word out to the state associations from United Cerebral Palsy of Houston asking for help in obtaining donations of durable medical equipment, as many people in the ravished areas of the south were transported without their walkers, wheelchairs, canes, etc. As an occupational therapist who has dealt with an array of disabilities and equipment issues over the years, I could not image how hard it was for individuals not to have their equipment in such a crisis. True, I can understand the first response was to airlift people from their homes and bring them to safety, but what happens next?

Once you devised a plan, how did you spread the word? Did you use NYU as a resource?

My first idea was just to try to collect equipment internally within our agency. Although, a lot of equipment was collected, I knew it would not meet the demand.

I decided to send an e-mail to all the occupational therapy schools in Metropolitan area including my alma mater, New York University. Professor Jim Hinojosa contacted me first and said he would be willing to participate in this drive to collect donations of durable medical equipment. It just snowballed from there as the email was passed along to the student body through the NYU listserv. The announcement generated an outpouring of responses from people who wanted to donate. New York University was my largest resource, especially Phyllis Ginsberg who organized the equipment on the other end in preparation for the pick up in late September.

Through NYU, a vendor contacted me directly and donated two 24-foot trailer trucks full of equipment to be shipped down south. The whole experience of generosity for this great cause was almost surreal. Besides NYU, Columbia University, Dominican College, the New York City Department of Education, and private donors participated in this effort.

How did your training and background as an occupational therapist affect the way you perceived the crisis following the hurricane?

I looked at the big picture. Many people were being assisted through normal channels (Red Cross, FEMA, etc). But with a massive disaster such as this, where do individuals with special needs go for help? Who coordinates their needs? Although the Red Cross and other agencies assisted with basic needs, I felt an occupational therapist could look at the situation and focus on returning individuals to prior routines and habits. As occupational therapists we look at things differently, especially how obstacles in the environment prohibit individuals from engaging in occupation(s). In this case, with so many people affected, returning to normalcy would be almost impossible without their adaptive equipment. I believe my background as an occupational therapist afforded me the opportunity to understand the importance of adaptive equipment and the difference it makes in the independence of the individuals we serve.

Do you see a potential role for occupational therapists in natural disaster relief?

Occupational therapy surely has a role in natural disaster relief efforts as we see individuals as occupational beings, rather than separate pieces in a puzzle. The main concern of occupational therapy is how changes in routines and habits affect an individual. After a disaster like this, many people suffer occupational disruption. Our role is two-fold in that we work with individuals in facilitating a healthy occupational transition, in adapting to their new environment. Second, as experts in adaptive equipment, we can coordinate the special needs of individuals with disabilities in securing the equipment required to engage in prior routines.

Photo: Gary Grimaldi (center) loads donated crutches and walkers for transport to Katrina Huricane victims, with assistance from Phyllis Ginsberg (right), Steinhardt Occupational Therapy, and Jhun Quijote, a Senior Physical Therapist with the Queens community outreach program of Cerebral Palsy Associations of NYS.

Written by Ivory Flynn for the NYU Steinhardt Occupational Therapy Alumni Newsletter