Recent OT grad returns home from rehabbing veterans in Ukraine

Robert Motley poses for a portrait on the quad outside UNE's Parker Pavilion. He wears a shirt that reads "Superhumans," which is the name of the clinic he volunteered at in Ukraine.
Robert Motley, M.S.O.T. ’23.

Robert Motley has never been one to shy away from a challenge.

Motley, of Woodstock, Connecticut, spent four years in the Army ROTC during his undergraduate years before completing one year of active duty. An injury forced him to retire early — but he didn’t stay down for long, taking up a career as a wilderness rescuer in the mountains of Wyoming.

His desire to provide better medical care for soldiers led him to pursue a master’s degree in occupational therapy (OT) at UNE. He said having an OT on his own care team would’ve allowed him to return to the things he loved doing far sooner.

After two years of study, Motley graduated with his Master of Science in Occupational Therapy (M.S.O.T.) degree in May. But instead of entering a private practice or working for a local health care network, as many do, Motley forged his own path.

Inspired by the images of war in Ukraine, Motley decided to use his newfound skills to make a difference overseas. He departed in June for a six-week trip to the eastern European country to rehabilitate veterans of war with the goal of getting them back out on the front lines.

He came home in August and, last week, returned to UNE to share his story with students currently enrolled in UNE’s occupational and physical therapy programs.

At a presentation given at UNE on Thursday, Sept. 7, Motley spoke of what he called the wartime culture of love and hate — the compassion and camaraderie of banding together to help in the face of senseless violence.

Motley discussed his experience providing rehabilitation services at the Superhumans clinic in the city of Lviv, where he worked exclusively with soldiers who lost limbs. He showed photos of the destruction taken place in cities like Lviv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv. One night, he said, he slept in a subway station as bombs rang out overhead.

He also spoke of the patients at the clinic, a new facility designed to treat those wounded in combat. While chaotic at times, there was a familiar feeling of normalcy to the operation.

“Within my first 30 minutes at the clinic, I was given the most difficult patient of my life,” he said about a veteran whose hand was left marred by a missile strike. “But, for the most part, my day-to-day was kind of like what it would be at any other outpatient facility.”

Despite not knowing the language and relying on Google Translate (often unsuccessfully), Motley said he formed deep ties with the Ukrainian people. His go-to phrase, “duzhe dobre,” or Ukrainian for “very good,” became somewhat of an inside joke between him, his clients, and the rest of his team.

Motley even had the phrase tattooed on his arm as a symbol of the lifelong bonds he made there.

“As occupational therapists, we collaborate with our clients to get them back to their daily routines,” remarked Kris Winston, Ph.D., OTR/L, FAOTA, program director of occupational therapy at UNE. “For Rob, that often meant getting them back to the occupation of being soldiers.

“Our occupations, those things we do that have meaning and purpose, are also closely tied to who we are,” Winston continued. “With Rob’s experience as a soldier, he was able to relate to clients in Ukraine in a different way given his understanding of similar occupations and their ties to identity.”

At his talk, Motley encouraged those who wish to become involved in disaster OT to pursue their passions.

“I want to try to rally support for Ukraine in whatever way I can in Maine and in the Portland community,” he said, adding that he has accepted a job in Brunswick and will reside in Portland. “I will likely be going back to Ukraine in some capacity for the rest of my life, and I would love to do that with even more allied health professionals so we can have a better exchange of ideas and techniques.”

However, he said, the harsh realities of war are not to be taken lightly, noting that he relives his wartime experience every day. He noted that planes passing by overhead now sound like ballistic missiles to him and that he often feels a little jumpy — angry even.

“This is the best thing I’ve ever done. This is the most important thing I’ve ever done. But it comes with a price,” he said.

Watch the News Center Maine story

Robert Motley, M.S.O.T. ’23, talks with NEWS CENTER Maine reporter David Guildford about his experience rehabilitating wounded veterans in Ukraine.

Motley in front of the Superhumans clinic

Motley works on a veteran’s wounded hand

Motley poses with a soldier fitted with a prosthetic leg

Motley at Mountain Warfare School