Full Circle Moment: Occupational Therapist Finds Career, Love After Tragedy

Man and woman hugging

Life can change in an instant. No one knows this more than Joel Strain, an occupational therapist (OT) at HCA Healthcare’s Research Medical Center, who is wheelchair bound following a horrific accident that left his mother and brother dead more than a decade ago.

Through this tragedy, the 28-year old Kansas resident also knows that life can come full circle, too. And it did. The devastating accident led Strain to a meaningful career in OT, his future wife, also an occupational therapist in HCA Healthcare’s Midwest Health system, and hope for the future.

Here is his story.

By: Christine Hamele and Kimberly Stern, HCA Healthcare Midwest Health

Joel Strain’s entire life—and perspective—changed one Sunday afternoon in May 2004 when his family’s minivan crossed the line on a highway near Parsons, Kansas. Strain was 16 years old; his father, Duane, was driving when he fell asleep at the wheel and the car, also carrying Strain’s mother, Cathy, and 12-year-old brother Jed, careened head-on into an oncoming truck.

Strain’s mother and brother perished in the fiery crash; his father, Duane, survived along with Strain, who suffered a complete spinal cord injury as a result of the accident’s impact. Strain was med flighted from the scene to a Kansas City hospital and three weeks following acute care transferred to a rehabilitation facility in Wichita. The teen spent a month learning to cope with his new normal—and facing the reality of being in a wheelchair.

“The entire experience was traumatic and life-changing,” Joel says.  “I believe God taught me and my dad important lessons after losing mom and Jed.”

Strain has lived a full life in a wheelchair since 2004, including graduation from Friends University in Wichita with a degree in health management. Initially Strain planned to pursue sports management and then started pondering and considering his next step.

“I was working in a marketing department for a sports arena and decided I wanted to provide a technical service that would help others, something where I could interact with people,” Strain says. “Occupational therapy was a good fit, having experienced it myself and my degree set me up.”

Strain applied to Occupational Therapy programs and in May 2016 graduated from the University of Kansas Medical School’s Occupational Therapy program, taking a job at Research Medical Center as an occupational therapist.

“I love my job,” Strain says.  “Working with people to give them the same kind of hope and foundational building blocks I received during my rehabilitation stay is powerful and still helps me heal. I would be lying if I said things haven’t been difficult and there aren’t extremely challenging aspects of living with a disability, but the occupational therapists I worked with more than 10 years ago taught me literally how to get home safely, do things in a safe manner and helped me continue to grow in order to live a fulfilling life.”

Strain met his future wife, Renae, in occupational therapy classes. The two married in 2016 and now both work at an HCA Healthcare Midwest Health hospital and enjoy everything life offers.

“Renae is an OT at Centerpoint Medical Center in Independence, “ Strain says. “Although I still grieve the loss of my physical body and abilities on some level, I have an incredible life with her and helping others achieve as much independence as possible to live a gratifying and engaged life.”

The couple experienced a car accident on January 23, 2017, and the incident and its subsequent outcome is a part of their evolving story. Halfway through a winter vacation in Colorado, another driver swerved on ice into their lane. Renae spent 19 days hospitalized in Denver. Ironically, she broke her back at the exact same vertebrae Strain did 13 years prior.

“It was a miracle that she didn’t sustain injury to her spinal cord and can still walk,” Strain says.

“We can joke now that she’s a lot tougher than I am because she broke her back and can still walk. We’re both thankful to be alive and I know Renae will take this trauma and translate it into even better care for her patients because she’s now had the unique experience of not only providing occupational therapy as an OT, but also receiving it in her recovery.”

And for Strain, it’s one day at a time—he still prays for a miracle that someday he will walk. But for now he lives each day with gratitude, love and acceptance.

Man standing up from wheelchair and hugging woman

Joel Strain is an occupational therapist for Research Medical Center, while his wife, Renae, serves as an OT at Centerpoint Medical Center in Kansas. Both hospitals are part of HCA Healthcare Midwest Health. 

About HCA Healthcare

HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 183 hospitals and more than 2,300 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our more than 283,000 colleagues are connected by a single purpose — to give patients healthier tomorrows.

As an enterprise, we recognize the significant responsibility we have as a leading healthcare provider within each of the communities we serve, as well as the opportunity we have to improve the lives of the patients for whom we are entrusted to care. Through the compassion, knowledge and skill of our caregivers, and our ability to leverage our scale and innovative capabilities, HCA Healthcare is in a unique position to play a leading role in the transformation of care.

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