Leading Lady – Rita Burlingame-Toppen

Wellness practices take individuals from functional to thriving

By Mount Mary University

Posted on May 17, 2021

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To heal after an injury, finding the right treatment can be difficult. Sometimes, it may take many months or years of seeking care to find the right combination of modalities to ease pain and return to well-being.

For occupational therapist and educator Rita Burlingame-Toppen, OTD ’14 & ’18, this became personal when she experienced a neck, shoulder, and back injury from lifting.

Now she is driven to help others have better experiences in their health and wellness journeys and the Mount Mary community has benefitted from her wellness crusade.

As an assistant professor in Mount Mary’s occupational therapy department, she integrates these ideas into her teaching. Throughout the course of the pandemic, she’s also given numerous presentations to students and employees on strategies for alleviating physical and mental stress.

“The conventional rehabilitation approach for my injury took me from a state of pain and dysfunction to the ability to function again, however

it was the addition of holistic wellness practices (such as yoga, meditation, acupuncture, nutrition and chiropractic) that enabled me to shift from functional to thriving,” Burlingame-Toppen said.

“I had to do a lot of my own independent searching and learning to find the modalities and practitioners who could help me. I want to save others that time. The more people who know about these modalities, the more people we can support in their health journey.”

Burlingame-Toppen’s career started in Milwaukee Public Schools in various roles, one of which was a teacher of life skills to students in special education classrooms. She also earned her yoga teaching certificate and taught yoga to students with disabilities and the public.

When she made the decision to go to graduate school for occupational therapy, Burlingame-Toppen originally thought she would become a pediatric therapist. However, after her experience with injury, she shifted her focus to integrative physical disabilities rehabilitation.

After receiving her master’s degree in occupational therapy from Mount Mary in 2014, Burlingame-Toppen became an instructor in 2015, and later an assistant professor in 2018, after earning her doctorate.

Looking ahead, Burlingame-Toppen is currently creating a new, occupational therapy elective course that will be focused on wellness and prevention to be offered this fall. The course will emphasize occupational therapy’s role in community based wellness, health management education and integrative rehabilitation.

For her, wellness is more than a luxury, it’s an act of self-love for one’s self and others.

“Wellness isn’t a valiant and highly disciplined effort, but rather an act of love for oneself and one’s community,” she said.

“Be easy on yourself, practice gratitude, and start small. You can always build on small successes,” she said.

“Start with something. You can always make time for a one-minute meditation in the morning, stretching for ten minutes each day, or adding a handful of spinach to the dish you were already making. Find wellness habits that you enjoy, and continue to build on small changes.”

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