If there’s one thing to know about Encompass Health’s 2021 Southwest region Outstanding Employee Achievement Award winner, Austin Sparks, it’s that he doesn’t believe in working in silos—but he does believe in servant leadership. He is well known at CHI St. Joseph Health Rehabilitation Hospital in Bryan, Texas, for his effective communication with case management, pharmacy and nursing to ensure patient-centered approach to care. Although he serves as therapy team leader, Sparks has no problem stopping to give nurses a hand with actions outside of his job description. Colleagues say it’s in his nature to serve others and be a helper—a rare quality in a leader.
Earning the Respect of His Colleagues
Sparks came to Chi St. Joseph in 2019 as a frontline occupational therapist. It was his first job. His unwavering work ethic, positive attitude and teamwork mentality quickly proved him to be an integral member of the team. Sparks then progressed to lead occupational therapist, and then to his current role as therapy team leader. He has navigated the transition from peer to leader with ease and earned the respect and admiration of his colleagues. Sparks’ ability to build meaningful relationships has served him well both with his patients and colleagues.
“Working with Austin makes me feel like we’re running a family business,” said Physical Therapy Team Lead Olukayode Balogun. “Our job doesn’t end when we leave the office. When we get home, we’re often communicating about patients and what’s going to happen next. We have a deep connection that goes beyond work. For me, it makes me feel that I’m not just working here—but that I’m part of a family.”
“You don’t have to ask Austin to do something. He always does what’s right for his colleagues, for his team members, across disciplines, and especially for his patients. He leads by example,” said CEO Amy Gray.
Enhancing the Patient Experience
For Sparks, the patient’s needs always come first. He has gone above and beyond to enhance the patient experience at CHI St. Joseph, from creating a vegetable garden at the hospital, to fishing with patients at the nearby pond, to passing out gifts while dressed up like Santa Claus every Christmas season. Sparks often uses his personal time to shop for patients who don’t have the personal hygiene items or clothing they may need, because he knows that dignity and comfort will help their healing.
Occupational therapists often perform cooking tasks with patients, and they typically choose quick, no-fuss recipes with few ingredients. But when a particular patient with a passion for gourmet cooking wanted to prepare a multi-course meal, Sparks ensured he had all of the ingredients necessary and took the time to assist him. The patient proudly shared the delicious meal with staff members afterwards. Although it required time and effort, Sparks understood how important it was for that patient to gain confidence in the kitchen and be able to pursue his passion after returning home.
“What really drove me to healthcare was getting to personally see the impact therapy can make. As therapists, we can really impact and changes peoples’ lives. I wanted to be a piece of that puzzle—to help someone get their life back on track and get back to doing the things they love,” said Sparks.
Inspiring Patient Progress
Sparks’ ability to form meaningful relationships helps him connect with patients and inspire them to make progress they didn’t think was possible. Patients often request Sparks by name and consider him not only a therapist, but also a friend.
“Austin is often specifically named in patient satisfactions surveys. Patients know him by name. Whether it’s going out to the pond, or doing cooking activities or whatever it may be—above all, they’ll say they had fun with Austin. The patients don’t really look at it as therapy or hard work, but instead it feels like hanging out with a friend,” Gray said.
“Austin does a great job connecting with his patients and individualizing their plans of care, said Director of Therapy Operations Leslie Hyde. “He takes it to the next level in his therapy sessions. It’s fun to watch what he does every day, because it’s always going to be different. He makes it unique and special for each patient.”