Hands-on help: Occupational therapy alumna and donor Carol Wiley ’61 continues to give back

After Carol Wiley earned her occupational therapy degree from Wayne State University in 1961, she landed a job at what was then the Rehabilitation Institute of Metropolitan Detroit. There, one of her early patients was Mario Wallenda, a member of the Flying Wallendas high-wire circus act.

Carol Wiley
Occupational therapy alumna Carol Wiley ’61

On Jan. 30, 1962, the troupe was performing for a crowd of 7,000 at the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit when disaster struck. The troupe’s signature seven-person pyramid stunt collapsed, and two members of the troupe fell 35 feet to their deaths, while Mario was paralyzed from the waist down. Notoriously ill-tempered even before the tragedy, the 21-year-old became Wiley’s most challenging patient during his long recovery at what is now the DMC Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan.

“I would go into his room to help him get ready for breakfast and he would throw his pillows at me and say he didn’t want to get up,” Wiley recalled. “Eventually we called a truce and he ended up doing very well in his rehab.”

Wiley’s entire 40-year career is filled with similar examples of triumph over adversity. In the ’70s, she tended to tiny newborns in a Virginia hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. In the ’80s, she worked with children who were severely disabled from near-drowning episodes. And in the ’90s, she traveled to Russia to train local health care providers in therapy techniques for disabled children who hadn’t been given standard medical care or adaptive equipment prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Carol Wiley with a young OT patient
Wiley specialized in pediatric OT during her 40-year career.

She said every experience left her feeling accomplished and appreciated, and that it all was possible because of her WSU education. Finances played into Wiley’s decision to attend Wayne State — her total tuition bill was $110 per semester. Knowing that today’s students are paying much more than that is one reason Wiley resolved to establish a scholarship in her name.

The Carol A. Wiley Endowed Scholarship was awarded for the first time last year to Aevah Hebda, who is scheduled to graduate this year from the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences Master of Occupational Therapy program.

“I appreciate alumni who create scholarships,” Hebda said. “It shows they’re invested in the future of students, in the future of the program and in the future of the city of Detroit.”

Aevah Hebda
Carol A. Wiley Endowed Scholarship 2021 recipient Aevah Hebda.

Hebda came to WSU Applebaum to pursue her master’s after earning a bachelor’s in recreational therapy from Central Michigan University. “I wanted to take it a step further and approach the patients holistically, and really work with them on both their mental and physical capabilities and the compensations they can make,” she said. “I’ve seen the turnaround in patients’ lives from the results of therapy, and I would just love to have an amazing impact like that on somebody’s life.”

Wiley, who is very familiar with that feeling, said, “I do appreciate the opportunity to give back to a profession that I dearly loved.”

Caring career

Wiley’s family moved from Ohio farm country to metro Detroit during World War II, when her parents found work making propellers on a bomber plant assembly line. “We lived in a trailer across from the plant that would shake as bombers took off,” she recalled. “My mother wanted me to grow up and be a nurse in the Navy — despite my fear of the water.”

So, the College of Nursing is where Wiley began her Wayne State career in 1956. She was proceeding splendidly until her junior year, when she needed a round of inoculations before starting her clinicals. “I went to the Campus Health Center and after each shot, I would faint,” Wiley said. “That was not an ideal reaction for a future nurse.”

Carol Wiley working with a patient
"A child's occupation is to play," said OT Carol Wiley.

Realizing it was time to regroup, Wiley took a variety of classes the following semester and completed a career assessment. “The results said I should do something in the medical field or be a watchmaker,” she laughed. “I considered PT, but it was very male-oriented at the time. Then I saw what the OTs were doing and never looked back. I’m glad I found a way to take care of people and make a difference.”

During her years at Wayne State, Wiley lived at home and carpooled to campus. It was in that carpool on her very first day of classes that she met her husband Jim, who had just gotten back from the Korean War and was pursuing a history degree. They were engaged by the time she switched her major, and she met him for lunch after her first OT clinical at Detroit Memorial Hospital. She cried as she told her fiancé about meeting children with cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy, a completely new experience for her. “I said, ‘Oh Jim, a little kid was crawling and everyone was clapping for him — I want to do that for a living!’”

And she did. Wiley went on to specialize in pediatric occupational therapy, which helps children gain independence while strengthening the fine motor skills, sensory motor skills, and visual motor skills needed to function and socialize. “A child’s occupation is to play,” Wiley said. “If they can’t sit up and interact with their environment, they can’t learn and grow.”

Carol Wiley at work
Wiley was dedicated to her patients at Casa Colina Children's Services Center in California.

Wiley worked with children from one end of the country to the other, starting at the beginning of her career at the United Cerebral Palsy Center in Edison, New Jersey, and then for that organization’s outreach program in rural Illinois. The family moved to Virginia in the ’70s and Wiley worked in the NICU at a large hospital in Falls Church.

After heading west in 1982 to California, where she still lives, Wiley began working at a state-run developmental center, helping severely disabled children who’d nearly drowned. “At one point I had 25 children between the ages of 2 and 5 who had survived near-drowning experiences,” she said. “Most had gastronomy tubes and tracheostomies and had a great deal of spasticity. I focused on getting them off their tubes and eating, and into a more relaxed posture that would allow them to reach out and play.”

Carol Wiley working in Russia
In 1995, OT Week published Wiley's firsthand account of her time in Russia.

Wiley took those skills to Russia in 1994, when she spent three weeks in Ryazan volunteering with fellow OTs and PTs from the U.S. to treat severely disabled children who’d never had proper medical care. “People would bus in from miles away wearing cocktail dresses because they were seeing American therapists,” Wiley said, noting that they communicated through translators. “It was heartbreaking to see how malnourished the children were — they couldn’t eat so they had just been given bottles of sugar water their whole lives.”

In one case, Wiley showed a man how to make a supportive seat so his rail-thin 6-year-old could sit upright and be fed. She was delighted to learn during a follow-up visit that the father had gone home and not only followed her plans but took the extra step of upholstering the chair. “The parents’ follow-through on suggestions for a home program or in the construction of a piece of equipment was wonderful,” Wiley said. “It was not uncommon at an evaluation session or follow-up to have parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles there, all eager to learn new techniques to help the child.” [Read "They Know Us By Our Laughter," the story Wiley wrote for OT Week after returning from Russia.]

Carol Wiley with Elvis
Elvis is a Goffin's cockatoo who's been supervising Wiley's sewing projects for two decades.

Following her retirement in 2001, Wiley continued helping others through 15 years of volunteer work with the Assistance League of Ventura County. Along the way, she has inspired members of her family to pursue health care careers — her son John works on a medevac helicopter, and her grandson Patrick is working as an EMT as he prepares for medical school.

These days, Wiley helps her daughter Karen with her catering business, which stocks business office kiosks with healthy lunch options. She also tends to Elvis, a 21-year-old cockatoo, and takes lifelong learning courses through California State University, San Bernardino.

“I recently completed a class on writing your legacy letter,” Wiley said. “I’m proud that part of my legacy will be the Carol A. Wiley Endowed Scholarship. We OTs are good at our jobs and we care. That’s what I’ve always liked: The caring.”

Wiley with daughter Karen
Wiley with daughter Karen in Nags Head, North Carolina.

Scholarships encourage students to achieve their goals. For more information about creating a scholarship fund in the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, contact Jon Goldstein at 313-577-1095 or jgoldstein@wayne.edu.

An occupational therapist helps patients engage in everyday activities that are important to them, using a variety of productive and creative activities. The WSU Applebaum Master of Occupational Therapy program application cycle runs from Aug. 1-Nov. 1, with classes starting the following May. Learn more by attending a college information meeting, held for prospective students at 6 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month.

An anchor in urban health care 
The Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences is built on more than 100 years of tradition and innovation in the heart of Detroit. We have grown deep roots in our city, harnessing its powerhouse hospital systems and community service organizations as vibrant, real-world training grounds for students, with an ongoing focus on social justice in health care. And our research at all levels – from undergraduates to veteran faculty members – translates into creative solutions for healthier communities.

Wayne State University is a premier urban research institution offering approximately 350 academic programs through 13 schools and colleges to nearly 25,000 students.

Return to news