The “elephant in the room” was a massive steel aerial rig. And there was the book: The Aerial Circus Training and Safety Manual.
Melissa Gagnon, OTD’13, had moved into a cabin in Homer, Alaska, with a friend, and the rig was there, in the living room — intriguing and inviting.
She began practicing with it, every day, following along with photos from the book. She eventually got good — carefully contorting her body on the rig’s trapeze bar, her flips and spins mimicking those of the otters she watched from her cabin window. She taught herself moves with names such as “bird’s nest” and “gazelle.”
This wasn’t your traditional circus trapeze, upon which a performer flies through the air. This static trapeze hangs about four feet off the ground, attached to the steel rigging, allowing for a variety of acrobatic moves.
After time, all the flipping, twisting and contorting became Gagnon’s life’s work and an effective therapy tool for children visiting her occupational therapy clinic in Homer — aptly named Cirque Therapy.
There, Gagnon has her own steel rig, but now she teaches children the secrets behind aerial acrobatics using a trapeze and a long piece of fabric called a silk, all while improving her patients’ spatial awareness, social skills and quality of life.
It’s not an ordinary approach to pediatric occupational therapy, but nothing about Gagnon’s life has ever been ordinary.
A native of New Jersey, Gagnon lived in Philadelphia, Orlando, Florida, and Miami, before buying a bus ticket as far west as her last few dollars would take her — Reno, Nevada.
Eager to relocate, Gagnon, with $10 in her pocket, hitchhiked from Reno to work on a sustainable farm in a small Russian village on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, relying on the kindness of strangers who took her from the deserts of Nevada, through the Canadian Rockies until she reached the Last Frontier.
“Money is not going to stop me from doing something,” Gagnon says.
She only intended to stay in Alaska for the summer months, but 13 years later, the once nomad has settled here.
With the shortened Alaskan winter days — when sunlight can be fleeting — Gagnon enrolled in courses at a satellite campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage as a way to keep busy.
She mainly stayed in Homer, earning a degree in biological sciences. A few courses required her to move to Fairbanks with her then-infant daughter Zayda, where she lived in a house in which a trek to the bathroom meant going outside in minus-65 degree weather.
“If you don’t have an outhouse in Fairbanks, you don’t see the Northern Lights,” Gagnon says.
Realizing many of her co-workers on the sustainable farm had science degrees and were only earning $12 per hour, she knew she needed more education.
A frequent traveler, Gagnon had met a German couple while visiting Laos who were both occupational therapists, a profession she had always considered.
“They were like, ‘You should do it,’ ” Gagnon says. “‘We love our jobs, it’s satisfying.’ They totally sold me on it.”
As she finished her undergraduate degree in Fairbanks, she volunteered at an occupational therapy clinic in town, remembering her German friends. A co-worker mentioned a new occupational therapy program administered by Creighton University at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“There are so many scientists fighting for jobs in Alaska,” Gagnon says. “Occupational therapy is the complete opposite. There are so many jobs and so few occupational therapists. So it made a lot of sense.”
Meanwhile, Creighton leaders had come to the same realization about the state of occupational therapy in Alaska a few years earlier. Al Bracciano, EdD, an occupational therapy professor at Creighton, was an early proponent of the Alaska program.
“Our primary goal is to provide occupational therapists who stay and practice in Alaska,” Bracciano says.
In 2008, Creighton established the Alaska Pathway Program, the first occupational therapy program in Alaska. It was designed for Alaska residents to study occupational therapy and eventually work in their home state — where there was a dire need for therapists.
To learn more about Gagnon and Creighton’s occupational therapy program, read the full article in Creighton magazine.