Heroes come in many disguises
Master of Occupational Therapy student Tiana Brown talks to North Dakota Medicine about teaching, superheroes, and living in North Dakota.
When asked about how the transition from South Carolina’s heat to North Dakota cold was for her, Tiana Brown just smiled.
“You’re not going to believe me, but when it first snowed after I came here, it felt like home to me,” said the graduating Master of Occupational Therapy student who, it turns out, knows all about the cold and has made a living adapting to new environments. “I was born and raised in Germany—was there for 12 years. So, I love the snow. The negative 65 degree wind chill here is a bit much, but it wasn’t a shock coming here.”
The daughter of a decorated U.S. Army veteran father and breast cancer survivor and patient advocate mother, Brown didn’t experience the United States until a military transfer brought her family to Columbia, S.C., in May 1999. After an airman she was dating there was sent to the Grand Forks Air Force Base, Brown—who made that man her husband—soon followed suit.
And if the graduate degree and lifelong friendships she has made over the course of five years in North Dakota are any indication, she’s glad she did.
When she first arrived in North Dakota, Brown wondered if the prairie was the right place for a personality as bold as hers.
A graduate of the University of South Carolina’s exercise physiology program, Brown was looking for not only the right profession but an environment open to her joie de vivre, or exuberance in life.
And after shadowing an occupational therapist in Grand Forks, she knew she had found both.
“I was trying to figure out whether I should do med school or PA or something else and found that occupational therapy was the perfect fit for me,” said Brown, who plans to subspecialize in either chronic wound care or work rehabilitation. “The UND program molds us to be generalists and specialists at the same time, and I realized that I can go into mental health or acute care, rehab, work community, or public health—I can do anything I want to do. That’s what I love about OT.”
More than its versatility, occupational therapy, said Brown, seemed open to her big personality and sense of style.
“I am expressive through my clothes and hair, and I’ve found that people just seem interested,” she added, reflecting on how her style has been received in the upper Midwest. “I think with my military background—traveling a lot and being different from everyone else, especially in Germany—I learned to assume that people are good and will accept me for who I am. I’m an optimist and I’ve met some really great people, some lifelong friends here, people I’d call family.”
Still, Brown insists she’s a homebody.
“I enjoy hanging out with my husband and dog. I like to travel, but in the winter months, especially, I like watching a movie at home with a cup of hot cocoa,” she explained.
That said, Brown admits to being a “huge lover of superheroes”—Batman in particular—who dresses up whenever she can, especially when doing so gives her and her husband an opportunity to give back to their community. The two try to read to children at public libraries in the region in costume and go to the pediatrics wing of the local hospital as their schedules allow.
“When you put on a superhero mask, it does give you a certain ‘power’ to connect with people, young and old, I think,” she said, explaining how as an OT she identifies with the Batman character. “He’s this hero without super powers who turned his pain into passion for the good. He has to be a master of everything to achieve his goal. And I think that’s like OT in a way. You have to be a master of so many things— communicating with people, understanding science, making the most of resources around you—all without ‘real’ super powers.”
But Brown also has a soft spot for the Black Panther, explaining how she’d not seen African culture portrayed so positively in a graphic novel or film before.
“I thought it was beautiful. Mind-blowing,” Brown said. “I think a lot of people identify with that [the film], and with the nuance where the Black Panther was not always this great guy and the so-called bad guy was not really completely bad—he was a product of his environment.”
A foot in all worlds
Her superheroing notwithstanding, Brown has made it her mission to take advantage of every opportunity that has presented itself at the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences. This has meant trying everything from participating in Student Occupational Therapy Association meetings to staffing the Library Resources help desk on the School’s second floor to volunteering to give anatomy demonstrations to area high schoolers when they come to UND for a tour.
“I thought it sounded fun,” continued Brown, describing her presentation of human organs to young students, only a handful of whom were squeamish. “I’ve always been interested in teaching, especially now that the OT program has given me that confidence in my abilities to present material.”
So it is that Brown has begun considering whether or not she wants to add teaching to her skillset.
“Basically what I would love to do is be a clinical researcher connected to a university to help teach incoming students— like an adjunct,” she concluded. “I want to keep in touch with both academia and the clinic. As a student, I’ve found that we learn all these great things in the classroom, and the theories behind it all, and then we go into our clinicals and sometimes the clinicians are doing treatments that aren’t evidence-based. I like the idea of getting the data from research and applying it directly to a clinical practice.”
All in a day’s work for a caped crusader and do-gooder who is off to Nebraska for an advanced clinical doctorate degree in occupational therapy in August.*
“It’s a hybrid program—some classroom, some in-clinic, and some online—which allows me to work while I get the degree,” said Brown, a bit wistfully. “I’ve had the best experience here in North Dakota—me and my husband. The people here were immediately just so nice—they’re very interested in where you’re from and what you do. I found ‘North Dakota nice’ to be very true.”