(Curtis Michaels Photo)
“There but for the Grace of God, go I.” When Pat Herrera heard her grandfather, Procopio Gustamantes utter those words, she knew it was a prayer of compassion. He knew he was blessed, and for that he was grateful. When he saw others at a disadvantage, his heart went out to them.
Compassion is a family tradition in Herrera’s family. Her grandfather and father were ranch workers who understood what it meant to be stewards of the animals in their care.
“Even as a child I knew I didn’t want to work the fields for the rest of my life,” Herrera said.
When she was about 9 years old, her cousin went to Carrie-Tingley Hospital in Albuquerque with hip problems.
“She came home on crutches and I could see what the therapists had done for her,” Herrera said.
This was the moment her eyes were opened to life as a therapist.
“I went straight from high school to the occupational therapy program at Colorado State University,” she said.
She graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Occupational Therapy in 1966 and has been helping people get their lives back together ever since.
Herrera was born in Roswell in 1942 to the Gustamantes family. She worked alongside her family for local ranchers, until they moved to Cortez, Colorado, in 1956.
In 1965 she married Jose Herrera. In their 30 plus years of marriage they raised five children, Genevieve, Jose Jr., Sueanne, Gabriel and Angelica.
From 1966, when she got her degree, until 1975 Herrera worked at the Colorado State Hospital and the Colorado State Training School. The family moved to Lompoc, California, and in 1976 she began working for the Tri-Counties Regional Center for Mentally Challenged Infants, and for Social Advocates for Youth, a juvenile delinquency prevention program. She remained there until 1982. They moved to Clearfield, Utah, where she worked for Weber Training Center, a school for the developmentally challenged, and the University of Utah Medical Center until her husband’s retirement in 1987.
They returned to Roswell in 1987, where Herrera started working for the Roswell Independent School District as a therapist until 1993. She then started the Occupational Therapy Assistant program at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell, and ran it from 1993 through her first attempt at retirement, and then back again until 2008.
When she retired from ENMU-R, she started work for Los Pasitos and then for her brother Frank Gustamantes at A to Z Therapy, a job from which she expects to retire in February.
After 50 years working in occupational therapy, Herrera says the most fulfilling part of the work has always been seeing people get their lives together again.
“Some people think occupational therapy is about getting people back to work, but we’re talking about the job of life,” she said.
It’s not just about adults, either.
“There is no monetary reward compared to helping a child learn how to walk or to dress themselves,” Herrera said.
Her work with the mentally ill also feeds her soul.
“Working with people who have mental health issues is so rewarding because you first see them and they are usually looking down all the time, and are afraid to interact with the world around them. But with just a few minutes of therapy they start to stand up straighter, and to walk with dignity,” she said.
“O.T. is more holistic than most therapies. A patient doesn’t just have a broken arm, he has other issues because of that. O.T. helps him to get it all together and to function again,” she said.
Occupational therapy has become an extension of her family’s tradition of compassion. Her son, brother, nephew and niece are all in the occupational therapy field as well.
Will Herrera stay retired this time? Does she have plans to fill the hours?
“I’m not a person with idle hands. I crochet, I knit, I sew and I like to get my hands in the dirt, and garden,” she said.
Herrera plans to spend the next few months traveling.
“I’m not interested in being a tourist; I’m interested in seeing what we have in New Mexico,” she said.
She also plans to visit her longtime friend and co-worker Dr. Meenakshi Nayak in North Carolina this spring. While she’s on that side of the country she will be able to visit with her son as well.
With her empathy, compassion and God given ability to heal, it’s hard to believe that even travel will keep Herrera retired for long.