ECU alum leads N.C. rehabilitation hospital to leadership on the global stage

In time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first graduating class of East Carolina University’s occupational therapy program, a large constellation of nonprofit therapy and rehabilitation hospitals and clinics, run by a proud ECU alumnus, has been inducted as an inaugural member of the World Health Organization’s World Rehabilitation Alliance (WRA).

Robert Larrrison Jr. is a two-time ECU graduate. (Photo by Ty Huff)

Robert Larrison Jr., who graduated from ECU’s occupational therapy (’90) and MBA (’98) programs, leads Atrium Health Carolinas Rehabilitation, which has dozens of rehabilitation hospitals and clinics across North Carolina and Georgia. Atrium Health Carolinas Rehabilitation is one of only two hospitals in the country to receive the global honor from the WHO.

Larrison’s family is about as Pirate as they could get. He was a top scoring midfielder for the soccer team. His wife, Katrina, is a fellow ECU occupational therapist who ran the 100-meter hurdles for the track team and was a chapter founder and president ECU’s Zeta Tau Alpha sorority. Their children are carrying on the Pirate tradition — their daughter graduated from ECU’s physical therapy program in 2023 and their son received a bachelors in history in 2017.

The man who now oversees thousands of employees who constitute a successful health care enterprise didn’t have a direct route to getting his MBA — he had to wait for a second chance for an acceptance letter.

“I was admitted to a couple of other MBA programs in North Carolina, but I really wanted to go to the ECU College of Business because it was one of the best and AACSB-accredited programs in the state,” Larrison said. “I went part time at night, forever. That was when distance education meant you drove a distance — I commuted from Raleigh for about four years.”

Larrison considers himself a nontraditional student: he was a male, fraternity member athlete in the female-dominated occupational therapy world.

“I’m incredibly grateful for the education that I got at ECU,” Larrison said. “ECU took a chance on me as a student.”

Larrison credits his peers in the occupational therapy (OT) field with the foresight to establish master’s and doctoral level education programs. He believes the education that current ECU occupational therapy students receive is providing them with a foundation of evidence-based research that is advancing the profession.

Dr. Robert Orlikoff, dean of the College of Allied Health Sciences, said his fellow faculty members are dedicated to preparing future health care professionals who aspire to a career that makes a difference in the lives of individuals and their families, which Larrison embodies in his work.­

“Our mission is one of transformation and, through our work with students, it is our goal to transform health care in ways that improve access to services and reduce health inequities, by integrating prevention, medical treatment and rehabilitation,” Orlikoff said. “It gives us great pride and promise that, as a Pirate OT, Robert Larrison can extend this very special ECU mission through his leadership at Atrium Health Carolinas Rehabilitation.”

Robert Larrison Jr. was a member of the Pirate soccer team as a student at ECU. (ECU Athletics)

Larrison, a fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives and a board member of the American Medical Rehabilitation Providers Association, is no stranger to leadership in the world of rehabilitation. In 2019 his hospital system won the American Hospital Association’s Quest for Quality Prize, the only rehabilitation hospital to do so.

The health care professionals that Larrison leads are also leaders in international engagement, most recently partnering with Qatar Rehabilitation Institute in Doha to find ways to extend developed nations’ rehab capacities across the globe.

“The objective of the WRA is to advocate for people who have all types of disabilities — whether they’re developmental, intellectual, physical, emotional — for access to rehabilitation, especially as it relates to people that are in underserved countries,” Larrison said.

In the United States, Larrison’s organization serves patients with low health literacy and often life-altering, catastrophic injuries and disease processes, which he said puts the Atrium team in a strong position to serve as charter members of the WRA.

“This seemed to be a natural fit for the work we were already doing, just on a larger scale. And ECU, our service attitude has always been a part of me,” Larrison said. “It’s been a really good fit for me personally.”

The leadership team at Atrium all have advanced degrees in business and health administration, but most have clinical experience as well, as physical therapists or nurses, which Larrison said is unique and improves the quality of care that their patients receive. Having clinicians, who have spent much of their careers directly helping people deeply affected by injury or illness, leverages a career’s worth of experience with intimate patient relationships — giving Larrison and his team a unique perspective on rehabilitation.

“There’s probably a little bit more empathy, compassion in some ways. Some of the patients we take care of have lives altered forever: high-level spinal cord injuries, somebody getting caught in machinery which was part of their livelihood,” Larrison said. “It’s really unique to have that complement and it’s also such an advantage.”

Dr. Denise Donica, chair of ECU’s occupational therapy program, said Larrison is an inspiration to everyone in the OT community, and his leadership in getting his hospital system included in the WRA program is a testament to his dedication to health care globally.

“It is always amazing to see how our occupational therapy alumni use their skills in creative and life-changing ways to impact individuals, groups, populations and the world,” Donica said. “This commitment shows ECU’s mission in action through the efforts of this alum to serve by transforming the lives of those across the globe who may have limited access to rehabilitation and unmet needs.”

Robert and Katrina Larrison celebrate the 50th anniversary of ECU’s occupational therapy program’s first graduating class with program chair Denise Donica, center, at the College of Allied Health Sciences. (Photo by Ty Huff)